Fun woman vs. machine smackdown in ‘Desk Set’

If Bunny Watson’s coworkers were threatened by EMERAC (a fictionalized version of the ENIAC computer of the 1940s), just think of how they’d feel about Hal or Siri!

Miss Watson, as she self-identifies when answering numerous phone calls, is the lead character in William Marchant’s 1955 play “The Desk Set,” onstage at the EXIT Theatre courtesy of No Nude Men. If the title is familiar, it’s likely due to the eponymous and frothy Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film adaptation that also featured Gig Young, Joan Blondell and Dina Merrill.

Bunny (Allison Page) is head of the research department at a fictional television network. She and her girls – one of many now-quaint references that can induce smiles or cringes – answer myriad questions from the mundane to the highly specific.

They are skilled professionals, justifiably concerned when Richard Sumner (Alan Coyne) seems bent on bringing automation to their world, and it’s interesting that, half a century later, the play feels oddly prescient in its themes of technophobia and, particularly for San Francisco, the easy, almost reflexive vilification of technology advocates.

It’s also a ’50s romantic comedy, so of course there are misunderstandings galore and a secondary story arc involving Bunny and Abe Cutler (Nick Trengove), a rising network executive. It should be no spoiler that woman triumphs over machine and it all ends fairly happily.

Director Stuart Bousel, a playwright with a penchant for smart dialogue, clearly has affection for the screwball comedy style, with its rapidfire dialogue and snappy pace. He does his best to deploy that essence in the tiny EXIT space but, with its limited movement options, his cast of a dozen sometimes feels crammed, leaving some minor characters feeling undeveloped and extraneous. The room is also very acoustically bright and performances would benefit by adjusting for that.

The rest of the production – an ambitious undertaking for the company – succeeds nicely. Brooke Jennings neatly dresses the company with “Mad Men” aspirations, Jennifer Varat creates a nicely evocative mid-century office setting, and J.D. Horg gets extra points for his whirring-flashing ’50s super computer in Act 2.

Among the principal players, Page and Megan Briggs, as Peg Costello, her majordomo, are a swell pair of BFFs and pull off a really funny drunk scene in Act 2.

Coyne nicely modulates the geek comedy of Sumner’s technologist and Trengove is perfectly smarmy as the clueless ’50s male.

Kitty Torres and Jeuneé Simon are sweet and smart as the other members of the research sisterhood, and Carina Lastimosa Salazar teeters just on the edge of caricature with her nerd girl computer operator.

The Desk Set
Presented by No Nude Men
Where: EXIT Theatre, 156 Eddy St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; closes July 25
Tickets: $20
Contact: (415) 931-1094,

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