By Philip Pearce
A SELDOM SEEN Noel Coward comedy called Fallen Angels charms, sparkles and explodes all over the stage of the Colligan Theater in a slick new production by Jewel Theatre Company of Santa Cruz.
The glitter and glitz hit you right in the face as you enter the theater. Tom Buderwitz’s period drawing room set glows with vivid blue wallpaper, lozenges of Tiffany window glass and the upstage grand piano that’s standard equipment in any self-respecting Coward comedy.
Noel could have sub-titled his script “Waiting for Maurice.” All it’s really about is a pair of over-priced Park Lane socialites who are bored with their stuffy, conventional husbands. Taking advantage of the absence of the indifferent Willy and the bombastic Fred on a weekend golfing trip, Julia and Jane await an exciting secret reunion with a long lost Gallic lover left over from their naughty debutante days. Unlike Godot, Maurice finally checks in, but only for an anti-climactic minute or so, briefly but deftly handled by J. Paul Bohmer near the end of Act 3. The rest of the evening is just bosom buddies Jane and Julia primping and speculating and violently falling out with each other as they await the ever-delayed arrival of the magic Maurice.
It’s the kind of super light-weight stuff that has to be kept bubbling for nearly two hours, a process Coward has made extra challenging by a second act that’s essentially one extended double-decker drunk scene.
Director Art Manke clearly knows his way around flapper-era farce and he has assembled an adroitly cast and brilliantly drilled acting team. Wearing slinky drawing room pajamas to start with, the delectable Nike Doukas is all British bubble and squeak as Julia Banbury, a role I was surprised to learn has been played in the past by actresses as wildly varied as Tallulah Bankhead, Fay Bainter and Rhoda’s tiny Brooklyn TV mom Nancy Walker. As Julia’s best friend Jane Sterroll, lissome Marcia Pizzo starts off a shade more frumpy and conventional, only to lapse into roaring tour de force inebriation in the action-packed but single-noted Act 2. As their respective husbands, Kit Wilder and Shaun Carroll are appropriately huffy and stuffy and echo their wives in perfect Mayfair accents, but the show really belongs to the women. (The cast list actually credits Doukas and Wilder with playing the Sterrolls and Pizzo and Carroll with playing the Banburys, but the cast bios get it right.)
Coward reputedly could churn out hit comedies in a matter of weeks, producing sexy society sirens like Jane and Julia with one hand tied behind him. But he may have been at his brilliant best in creating eccentrics like Blithe Spirit’s weird, wonderful and unpredictable Madame Arcati. So one of the major joys of Fallen Angels is Julia and Willy’s newly hired housemaid Saunders. Acted with assured comic brio by Diana Torres Kost, the lady arrives for work dressed like every other drawing room comedy stage housemaid you’ve ever watched wielding a feather duster, but don’t be fooled. She promptly takes every opportunity to shatter her stereotype and prove that Saunders’ gifts extend way beyond answering doorbells or serving tea and cocktails. She sends Willy off stuffed with expert golfing tips, she plays rippling rings around Julia on the keyboard of the grand, belts out “I Want to Be Happy” and other music hall songs while the play is happening and again as the set is being redressed during the first interval. She corrects Jane’s halting efforts to compose an appropriate letter to Maurice in French, a language Saunders proves able to employ with flawless fluency in a funny phone call, and when the girls start ordering drinks Saunders stirs a mean martini with all the aplomb of a lace-aproned James Bond (“I used to be a bartender.”) You feel that if anybody suddenly had to fly to Beirut or Bangalore, Saunders would casually whip a pair of goggles out of her apron pocket and warm up the de Havilland DH4.
The play has had an upsurge in recent productions, but is still not rated among Noel Coward’s top works. At the time he wrote it (late 1920s) he seemed to feel that too much plot got in the way of the flow of smart talk and, wacky and active as it all is, the story and characters of Fallen Angels are pretty thin. But Private Lives has even less plot than Fallen Angels and yet remains the most popular and frequently revived of all Noel Coward’s works.
Both plays involve two pairs of marriages threatened by a return of one spouse to a former liaison. Both contrast the attitudes of a free-wheeling flapper age with earlier blinkered middle class morality. Both scripts are as symmetrically structured as an Inigo Jones facade: what happens to one couple is, in each play, duplicated by the same thing happening to the other couple. Both scripts involve a pair of “liberated” characters who lurch between mutual adoration and angry physical abuse. With so many similarities, why the difference in popularity and staying power of Private Lives over Fallen Angels?
Driving home, I decided that, for all the shouting and fisticuffs in Private Lives, Coward has also filled it with generous helpings of moonlight, witty love talk and sentimental mood music, whereas Julia and Jane, even in their best-friend mode, have an unromantic bitchy vindictiveness that could become pretty tiresome. It takes the unerring skill of performers like Doukus and Pizzo to make that noisy second act work.
This production at the Colligan offers an opportunity between now and February 21st to see a rare piece of jazz age theater performed with precision timing and flawless comic brilliance.
Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo