Present Laughter at the Shaw Festival

Steven Sutcliffe and Claire Jullien as Garry and Liz Essendine

The Shaw Festival does Noël Coward practically as well as it does Shaw, and this year’s Present Laughter, a 1939 comedy, is a good example. In fact, a repertory company like the Shaw’s, whose players have a lot of experience with one another, is especially suited to perform Present Laughter, which is a play about the intimacy and cohesion of a small group of friends.  These actors have collectively played a lot of Coward; the show’s star, Steven Sutcliffe, was in the cast 20 years ago when the Shaw Festival last did Present Laughter. It’s a briskly-paced, well-acted show.

This play gives us a few chaotic days in the life of British actor Garry Essendine (Sutcliffe), a character who closely resembles Coward himself, especially the way Mr. Sutcliffe plays him – charismatic, vain, flamboyant, supremely self-confident.  I liked Noël Coward all the more after seeing this play again; there’s a lot to be said for someone who is sufficiently self-aware to poke fun at his own foibles.

Steven Sutcliffe and Mary Haney as Garry Essendine and his secretary, Monica Reed

I’d be glad to trade my chaos for Garry Essendine’s.  What play to pick for my next star turn?  What theater to put it in?  What actress to pick to replace the one who just broke her leg?  How to get rid of a star-struck airhead who’s still there in the morning?

Fortunately for Garry, he has plenty of support.  Besides the valet and the Swedish cook who keep his apartment/studio functioning (my wife and I loved William Schmuck’s loft-style set and the extravagant dressing gowns for Garry), Garry has a long-time personal assistant (the wonderful Mary Haney, whose deadpan one-liners cracked me up) and a tight inner circle of associates that includes his still affectionate ex-wife, Liz (Claire Jullien, in a complex role that she makes look easy).

Steven Sutcliffe as Garry Essendine and Moya O’Connell as Joanna Lyppiatt

The fly in the ointment is the sexually voracious Joanna (Moya O’Connell, and very convincing in the role), who has been married to Hugo (Patrick McManus) for five years but is still viewed as an interloper by the rest of the circle.  Garry is alarmed to learn that Joanna has been having an affair with Morris (Gray Powell), which threatens to break up the “family.”  Garry is even more discomfited when, late one evening, Joanna tries to seduce Garry himself.

In the midst of all these crises, Garry finds his apartment infested with Roland Maule, an aspiring young playwright who is obsessed with Garry.  Jonathan Tan’s high-speed portrayal of Roland was a great crowd-pleaser the night we saw this show, though it seemed to me a bit of a diversion that interrupted the feel of the play.  Far more perfectly in the spirit was the iridescent Jennifer Phipps, who plays an elderly society lady who has persuaded Garry to give her niece an audition.

Present Laughter is a brilliantly constructed comic masterpiece.  People insinuate themselves into Garry’s apartment under false pretenses, a la Wodehouse and Wilde; inconvenient people are hustled into side rooms to avoid awkward encounters.  The repartee dazzles.

But if I can’t list Present Laughter as one of my favorite Coward plays, it’s because the world of Garry Essendine is simply too far removed from mine.  Garry and his pals aren’t just in show business, they’re at the top of the pile.  How much different are the lives of these stars from the lives of George and Lily Pepper, the fading vaudeville performers in Coward’s Red Peppers (see this post)!  Garry Essendine, poor fellow, has to deal with impudent servants, with wannabe playwrights, and with women who throw themselves at him.  The Peppers, on the other hand, have to cope with drunken musicians who play their songs too fast; they have to worry about where they might get their next engagement.  We can identify with George and Lily, never with Garry.  And what a contrast between the characters in Present Laughter and the work-a-day families in Coward’s Fumed Oak (see, again, this post) and This Happy Breed, which is perhaps the quintessential portrayal of the English middle class.

Coward is almost the only politically conservative playwright whose works are presented at the Shaw Festival, and Present Laughter is, without making a big deal about it, a capitalist-friendly play.  Like other business people, Garry and his associates are concerned with maintaining their brand, new product development, business finance, personnel issues, and so on.  (Hugo, who produces Garry’s plays, is one of the few capitalists who is favorably portrayed in any notable twentieth-century play.) And in its way Present Laughter is a “family values” play — the plot is primarily about how Garry, Monica, and Liz fend off threats to their clan.

And yet we couldn’t help seeing Present Laughter as an expression of Coward’s views on freedom in sexual behavior and as an “apology” for his own lifestyle.  The moral of the play, if it could be said to have one, is that what a fellow does in bed with someone shouldn’t matter to anyone else (a proposition expressly defended not only by Garry but also by his valet, Fred).  And so, in the final scene, Liz comes back to Garry knowing full well that in their future life together he will surely not be faithful to her.  Indeed, the climactic joke in Present Laughter, which comes in the play’s last minute, is that Garry, Hugo, and Morris forget their jealous quarrel over Joanna the second she leaves the flat and turn instead to what really matters – what really binds their “family” together – which is the joy of hammering out the details of their next production.

This is fantasy, of course – fantasy to suppose that any husband, wife, or lover, whether in heterosexual or homosexual relationships, can realistically be expected not to be jealous when a partner has a little casual fun on the side.  Sexual possessiveness is not a conditioned social reflex; we’re hard-wired to feel it. No doubt Coward felt that more people should have “open” relationships like that of his friend Cole Porter and his wife Linda Lee Thomas.  Unfortunately, human nature is not so flexible.

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We preview the Shaw Festival’s 2012 season

Shaw

The Shaw Festival’s anniversary season had three Bernard Shaw plays, plus My Fair Lady, but in 2012 the playbill will be back down to two.  Neither Misalliance nor The Millionairess is a major work, and The Millionairess won’t start up till late June. Last fall the Shaw Festival hosted a two-day forum on the “relevance” of Shaw, and everyone agreed solemnly that his plays are still very, very important. But even if the Shaw Festival sticks with its custom of putting on two Shaw plays every season, it seems clear that Shaw won’t necessarily be front and center in any given season anymore.

We do get it. Personally, we look forward to the Shaw plays, but some people who go to Niagara-on-the-Lake for theater avoid them like the plague.  Shaw isn’t like Shakespeare; he simply doesn’t have hard-core fans. According to a recent Shaw Festival press release, only 65,000 of the 274,800 tickets sold at the Shaw Festival in 2011 were for Shaw plays. The management brags that this is up from 50,000 and 52,500 for Shaw plays in 2009 and 2010, but that really doesn’t say much; it’s not surprising that three plays sold more tickets than two.

Emsworth is stoked about the lineup for 2012, despite what has become an annual disappointment: the Festival is still shying away from Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. Our earlier experiences with William Inge (in 2005), Githa Sowerby (in 2004 and 2008), and Terence Rattigan (also in 2008) left us wanting more of their plays, and in the 2012 season we get all three.  It’s rude to say it, but we find the Shaw Festival’s lineup for 2012 considerably more attractive top-to-bottom than the one at Stratford, which has only three Shakespeare plays and includes such head-scratchers as You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and a Homer Simpson version of Macbeth.

Here’s what we think of the 2012 Shaw Festival season, beginning with the shows we’re looking forward most.

1. Come Back, Little Sheba (William Inge).  Bach in 2004, Emsworth and wife found the Shaw Festival production of William Inge’s Bus Stop so appealing that we saw it twice.  That show, a sexually charged story of folks stranded during a blizzard at a bus stop in the middle of Kansas, was directed by Jackie Maxwell, who will now direct Inge’s first successful play, Come Back, Little Sheba.

There’s likely to be plenty of middle-America passion in this show too, with regrets and recriminations. The protagonists are a midwestern chiropractor and the former beauty queen he had to marry twenty years earlier; their lives change when they take a college student into their home as a boarder. Corrine Kozlo and Ric Reid will play the lead roles.

Michael Ball

2. French Without Tears (Terence Rattigan).  French Without Tears was Rattigan’s first successful play. It’s a light comedy whose tone will surely be very different from the witty but sobering After the Dance, which we saw at the Shaw Festival in 2008. 

We were dazzled by After the Dance, our first Rattigan play (see this Emsworth post), and since then we’ve gone out of our way to dig deeper.  We’ve found and devoured copies of his plays The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tables, and After the Dance, all of which are notable for their elegant construction, brilliant, subtle characterizations, and economical dialogue. We’ve also seen several movies based on Rattigan’s plays — he did a lot of screenwriting — including Separate Tables and The Browning Version (the classic 60-year-old British film versions), both of which we now rank among our very favorite movies, The Winslow Boy (again the original version), and The Prince and the Showgirl, with Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, as well as The V.I.P.s, for which he wrote the screenplay.

All this reading and movie-watching has made Emsworth a serious fan of Terence Rattigan, and now we understand why Jackie Maxwell apparently thinks his plays worthy of being in rotation at the Shaw Festival along with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noël Coward.  There were, incidentally, revivals of a couple of Rattigan plays in the London theaters this last year — perhaps Ms. Maxwell is simply riding the wave. We’re pleased to see that Michael Ball, still one of our favorite Shaw Festival actors, will have a leading role in French Without Tears .

3. Misalliance (Bernard Shaw). By the time Shaw wrote Misalliance in 1909, his plays were beginning to rely less on believable plots and action and more on learned chatter — so much so that in Misalliance the characters themselves gripe about all the talking and preaching!  Poking a little fun at himself, probably, Shaw has Johnny Tarleton complain to his father about didactic novels:

I’ll bet what you like that I read more than you, though I don’t talk about it so much. Only, I don’t read the same books. I like a book with a plot in it. You like a book with nothing in it but some idea that the chap that writes it keeps worrying, like a cat chasing his own tail. I can stand a little of it, but a man soon gets fed up with that sort of thing.

At the play’s end, Johnny’s father finally mumbles, “Well, I — er — well, I suppose — er — I suppose there’s nothing more to be said.” His daughter’s reaction:

Hypatia [fervently] Thank goodness!

Misalliance has a lot of the same proto-absurdist elements as Heartbreak House, which Shaw wrote about eight years later. (See this post for a catalog of Emsworth’s grievances with Heartbreak House, which we saw again at the Shaw Festival this last summer.) In each play, residents and guests at a country house are menaced by aircraft, and in each an intruder bursts into their midst who — surprise — turns out to be part of someone’s past.  In each play characters are intensely attracted to one another on five minutes’ acquaintance, and in each an old coot falls for a young woman.

But there is still a lot of snappy stuff in Misalliance, and we’re genuinely looking forward to it. Wade Bogert-O’Brien, a young actor whom we liked very well in last year’s Candida, will play the adventurous aviator Joey Percival. It’s not a lengthy play, as Shaw plays go.

4. Hedda Gabler (Henrik Ibsen). We continue to be dismayed that some of our favorite Shaw Festival performers, like Ben Carlson, Kelli Fox, Evan Buliung, and Deborah Hay, have migrated over to Stratford in the last several years. Even Christopher Newton, the Festival’s former Artistic Director, will be directing Shakespeare there in 2012. But one of the finest performers in the history of either company, Martha Henry, is coming to the Shaw Festival in 2012 to direct Hedda Gabler.

We’ve been trying to cultivate an appreciation for Ibsen, and for Netflix subscribers we can heartily recommend a 1973 film version of A Doll’s House starring Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Richardson that we saw just a couple of weeks ago. For all its enormous reputation we don’t know Hedda Gabler, which is about the hijinks of a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage. Moya O’Connell, Patrick McManus, and Gray Powell will make up the play’s love triangle. This is just the sort of play that belongs in the Courthouse Theatre, where it will be staged.

In the work of Ibsen, said Emma Goldman, “lay all the instruments for the radical dissection of society.” Or, at least, that’s what E. L. Doctorov said she said in his novel Ragtime. (Doctorov probably didn’t entirely make this up; see this Goldman essay on Ibsen.) On the other hand, H. L. Mencken, a scribe whose judgment we generally respect, insisted that Ibsen was no “tin-pot radical” at all. According to Mencken, Ibsen “believed in all the things that the normal, law-abiding citizen of Christendom believes in, from democracy to romantic love, and from the obligations of duty to the value of virtue, and he always gave them the best of it in his plays.” We wonder which view of Ibsen Martha Henry’s direction will take.

5. Ragtime (musical based on the novel). Ragtime seemed to us the best of the E. L. Doctorov novels that we read, but we could never figure out how they could make a musical out of it, especially one that is almost entirely musical numbers and hardly any dialogue, like an opera.

The book includes more characters and subplots than could possibly be fit into a musical play. But Les Miserables was a much bigger book, and they made the best musical in 40 years out of it. We will soon find out. Thom Allison will play Coalhouse Walker Jr., the black piano player driven to extremes by racial oppression.  Emsworth himself has happily played much of Scott Joplin on the piano for years and hopes there will be plenty of ragtime music in this show.

6. His Girl Friday (Suzan-Lori Parks). This play’s title will be familiar to any fan of Hollywood screwball comedies, but the 1940 movie was adapted from a 1928 play called The Front Page. The play at the Shaw Festival in 2012 is an adaptation of both, done by the playwright John Guare (best known for Six Degrees of Separation) in 2003.  It’ll be closer to the movie than the play.

The Shaw Festival has hit big and missed big on classic American comedies. The hits include a couple of funniest things we’ve ever seen on stage, You Can’t Take It With You (1998 and 1999) and Born Yesterday (2009), but the misses include a disappointing The Women (2010) (see this post) and a sour, unfunny Three Men on a Horse (2004). The announcement that Benedict Campbell and Nicole Underhay will play the “Cary Grant” and “Rosalind Russell” roles, respectively, in His Girl Friday gives us reason to hope for this show. Jim Mezon is directing; it’s disappointing that he seems to be appearing as an actor in only one play in 2012 (a supporting role in Hedda Gabler).

Coward

7. Present Laughter (Noël Coward). Three years after a Shaw Festival season that included four Noël Coward shows, Coward is back. Garry Essendine, an actor in light comedies who is the lead character in this 1939 play, is a lot like Coward himself; several other characters are thought to have been based on some of his close friends and lovers. Steven Sutcliffe will play Garry Essendine.

8. A Man and Some Women (Githa Sowerby). Githa Sowerby is so obscure that she doesn’t even have an entry in Wikipedia. (We’re thinking of rectifying that.) But Jackie Maxwell has pulled her out of obscurity; the Sowerby play The Stepmother, which we saw in 2008, gave us a wonderful evening of entertainment (see this Emsworth post). We know nothing about this 1914 play of Sowerby’s — probably no one else does, either — except that it involves money conflicts in a family consisting of a man and two spinster sisters.

9. The Millionairess (Bernard Shaw). This Shaw play is near the end of our list, but not because we’re not interested in it. One reason is that we have a mild crush on Nicole Underhay, who will play Epifania Fitzfassenden, a rich girl forbidden by her father’s will from marrying unless her fiance can turn 150 pounds into 50,000 pounds within six months. Shaw was 80 years old when he wrote The Millionairess, which we think is the last play Shaw wrote that had any real entertainment value.

10. Trouble in Tahiti (Leonard Bernstein). The Shaw Festival’s one-hour-long lunchtime show in 2012 will be an opera! Leonard Bernstein’s songs tell the story of an American housewife and her white-collar husband. Like all the Shaw’s lunchtime shows, this one will be a great bargain at $32 per ticket. We thoroughly enjoyed Bernstein’s Wonderful Town at the Shaw Festival in 2008 and West Side Story at Stratford in 2009.

11. Helen’s Necklace (Carole Fréchette). In the new Studio Theatre space will be a play by French-Canadian playwright Carole Fréchette, presented in English. The story promises to be a modestly fantastical account of a woman who has lost a necklace in a city in the Middle East like Baghdad or Beirut. The lead role will be played by Tara Rosling, whom we remember as Eliza Doolitte in Pygmalion a few years back. This show runs for only a month and a half, starting in mid-July.

Ways of the Heart at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Patrick McManus

Patrick McManus was superb in Family Affair and even better in Ways and Means

Some folks saw all four of the Noël Coward shows at the Shaw Festival in a single day.  We spread Tonight at 8:30 out over two and half months, which gave us time to think (and blog) about what we’d seen. Now we’re done, having caught Ways of the Heart in the Courthouse Theater last Sunday evening.  These three one-acts may not be the best of the series, but they’re still indispensable.

But first, a protest against what we had to go through just to get into Canada in the first place. We left Rochester in plenty of time to reach Niagara-on-the-Lake by 6:00 or so and have dinner at the Epicurean before the 8:00 p.m. show. But cars were lined up at the Lewiston/Queenston border crossing for two miles, and we had to sit in line for the better part of two hours (our time with the customs inspector took all of 30 seconds). And what about the environment?  Our car’s computer said that we wasted nearly a gallon of gas idling in line; the SUVs all around us must have burned even more. We got to our show, without dinner, with only minutes to spare.

We saw recently that the Canadian government gave the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival several million dollars to promote tourism. Don’t they realize that nothing discourages spontaneous visits to Ontario more than the tedious, unpredictable delays at the border? Why didn’t they put a little extra “tourism” money into adding more booths at the border crossing and hiring more inspectors? We bet tourism would pick up by 100 percent if the province of Ontario could advertise that there’d never be more than a five minute wait at the border.

Back to the show: Ways of the Heart is at the Courthouse Theatre, where there’s a radically different dynamic between actors and audience. When you’re witnessing painful marital scenes like those in The Astonished Heart (the first and longest of the three plays in this show) from a vantage point eight feet away from the actors, you feel like a voyeur.

The Astonished Heart is one of two plays in Tonight at 8:30 that gives an embryo-to-grave sketch of an illicit romance. The first, in the Shaw Festival show titled Brief Encounters, was Still Life (see this post), in which an affair starts innocently; the lovers attract the audience’s sympathy because of their fundamental decency.

Claire Jullien

Claire Jullien

The lovers in The Astonished Heart are of a different sort. Here the affair starts when a jaded woman on the prowl, Leonora Vail (Claire Jullien), deliberately sets out to seduce an old school friend’s husband. Her target, Chris Faber (David Jansen), is a tightly wound, self-satisfied psychiatrist who turns out to be spectacularly ill-equipped for a relationship that he can’t control.  (Still Life involves an affair with a doctor, too.)  There’s no tenderness in their love affair, nor do we have much sympathy for the injured wife, Barbara (Laurie Paton), who faces the collapse of her marriage with almost pathological coolness.

Laurie Paton

We especially loved Laurie Paton as Lavinia Featherways in Family Affair

After intermission comes Family Affair, an intensely entertaining, offbeat satire of the way people behave when they’re not really sorry someone has died. The ten members of the Featherways family stand around their drawing room in extravagantly gothic mourning clothes (the play is set in the mid-1800s; the scene lacks only a raven) doing their best to mourn the passing of their father, whose Victorian portrait hangs over the mantle.

Michael Ball

We hope the Shaw Festival has bigger roles for Michael Ball in 2010

But they can keep up their long faces only so long.  One after the other, the Featherways admit to themselves and to each other that the old man was a dissolute skinflint and that his death came as a relief. Patrick McManus and Laurie Paton are in rare form as Jasper and Lavinia Featherways, but Michael Ball (still our favorite Shaw Festival actor) steals the show as Burrows, the Featherways’ decrepit, conveniently deaf butler.

David Jansen

David Jansen

The final play, Ways and Means, was, we must say, the weakest of the ten one-act plays we saw, even though its setting and plot are straight out of P. G. Wodehouse. The main problem, we thought, is that David Jansen plays what is supposed to be a comic role with the same sour, joyless affect that he used in The Astonished Heart earlier in the show. It’s also the way he’s currently playing the alcoholic James Tyrone in A Moon for the Misbegotten (see our review) and the way he played the shattered Horace Gibbens last year in The Little Foxes (see our review).  One approach doesn’t fit all.

Ways and Means takes place in a guest bedroom at the French Riviera estate of Olive Lloyd-Ransome (Lisa Codrington), where socialites Toby and Stella Cartwright (Jansen and Claire Jullien again) have overstayed their welcome. The Cartwrights live by their charm and wits, but now they’re broke; they’ve lost what little money they had at the casino and at the bridge table and don’t even have enough to leave town.

They brainstorm for ways to raise money: Have Stella’s maid hock a necklace?  Corral someone who owes them money? Borrow from their hostess? A solution comes in the middle of the night when an ex-valet-turned-burglar, Stevens (Patrick McManus again), invades their bedroom.

At our performance, the opening scenes between Stella and Toby got no audience reaction.  Was this due, we wondered, to 75- year-old material that no longer packs any comic punches?  Unemployed social parasites like the Cartwrights were natural objects of ridicule in the twenties and thirties (Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and his fellow drones are the classic examples), but they’re not a familiar species anymore. At one point Stella says to Toby, “It seems a pity that you can’t turn your devastating wit to a more commercial advantage — you should write a gossip column.”  Toby responds, “I haven’t got a title.”  This must have been a surefire laugh line in 1935 when destitute dukes and duchesses wrote gossip columns for the London papers. But nobody laughed last Sunday evening in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

But even more of a problem than dated material, we thought, was David Jansen’s inability to deliver comic lines with comic effect. Moments after Patrick McManus came on stage as the burglar Stevens, the play came to life and our audience suddenly realized that Ways and Means was a comedy, not a drama. Did Coward’s play abruptly change its mood with Stevens’s entrance (to some extent it did, we think, though we hesitate to suggest that Coward wrote anything with a flaw), or did McManus bring comic skills that Jansen lacks? We would have liked to have seen Blair Williams, a talented comic actor who was director of this show, playing Jansen’s roles.

August 18, 2009: We see that the New York Times has noticed that the Shaw is doing  Tonight at 8:30 (see this post), although the writer mostly talks about the history of these one-act plays and doesn’t say much about these performances.

Emsworth reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

John Osborne’s The Entertainer (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)

Play, Orchestra, Play at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Jamieson and Turvey2

The Peppers are a bit old in the tooth to pass for a pair of young sailors

After seeing three of them, we can say with assurance that it was an excellent idea for the Shaw Festival to give four of its season’s shows over to Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8:30. The show at the Royal George Theater, Play, Orchestra, Play is every bit as entertaining as the others. 

The three one-act plays that make up Play, Orchestra, Play are quite different from each other: one is comic, one is brutally serious, and one is essentially a romantic fantasy. This is pretty much the same mix as in Brief Encounters, which we loved (see this post), but there is a good deal more music in Play, Orchestra, Play than in Brief Encounters — five songs in all, plus musical interludes between the plays.

First in order is Red Peppers, a slice from an evening in the life of George and Lily Pepper, a vaudeville pair who are are hanging on by their fingernails as the end of that era nears. The Peppers are still working, in cheap regional music halls, but their cross-talk is stale and their act’s not very good.

Jamieson and Turvey3

The Peppers squabble in their dressing room

We meet them on stage, dressed as a pair of sailors singing “Has Anyone Seen Our Ship”; the end of the number is spoiled when Lily (Patty Jamieson) drops her prop as they dance off the stage. As they change in their dressing room (the period costumes include vintage British underwear!), George (Jay Turvey) blames Lily for flubbing her exit, and they start rehashing old grievances.

But they stop bickering, close ranks, and redirect their fire toward the common enemy: the conductor of the house orchestra, the house manager, and another performer, all of whom drop by during the interlude before they go on again. (At some point in his career, Coward himself must have had to rely on unreliable house musicians for tempos; in Red Peppers he settles a score or two. In this production, unfortunately, the orchestra’s just a little too loud, so that we couldn’t catch all the lyrics to “Has Anyone Seen Our Ship” and “Men About Town.” No doubt the Peppers were familiar with that problem, too.) The insults fly around the dressing room; the pugnacious Peppers are shockingly willing to alienate the very people on whom they depend for professional survival. It’s all very funny, and very real.

Noel Coward

Coward

Coward was at the top of the entertainment world when he wrote this play in 1935. But he clearly loved people like the Peppers, who were at the bottom of the profession, for their fierce independence and their commitment to their craft. We met people a lot like the Peppers last winter when we read J. B. Priestley’s 1929 novel The Good Companions, which tells the story of a traveling troupe of perfomers who play small music halls throughout England.

The middle play, Fumed Oak, features the equally vulgar and far less lovable wife, daughter, and mother-in-law of Henry Gow. Fumed Oak is straight drama and has no musical numbers, but this was the play in Play, Orchestra, Play that we liked best.

Henry Gow & wife & child

Henry Gow (Stephen Sutcliffe) does his best to ignore his whining daughter and bitchy wife

The unfortunate Henry Gow (Stephen Sutcliffe) has been stuck for years in a job as a retail clerk; worse, he’s married to Doris Gow (Patty Jamieson again), who long ago tricked him into marriage with the old pregnancy ploy, thereby frustrating his dream of going to sea and seeing the world. “You’re a bad lot, Dorrie,” Henry tells his wife. “Mean and cold and respectable.” It took three years after their “little rough and tumble” for a baby to be born; their daughter Elsie (Robin Evan Willis), now a teenager, is a “horrid little kid,” as Henry says. His mother-in-law (Wendy Thatcher) lives with them in their tiny, noisy apartment and whines and bitches at everyone.

Henry Gow loses it

Henry Gow (Stephen Sutcliffe) declares himself free

During the first part of Fumed Oak, Henry sits silently at his breakfast listening to the females snipe at one another. (Unlike the bickering in Red Peppers, there’s nothing funny about it.) During the second part, Henry carries off an enormously satisfying coup, gives the women what for, and escapes his hellish home. Is this play misognynist? We thought about it and decided it wasn’t.

We wondered what the title of this play meant. Henry Gow says that when Conrad and Kipling wrote about the sea, they “knew there was a bit more to it than refinement and fumed oak and lace curtains and getting old and miserable with nothing to show for it.” When we got home, we looked it up and found that “fumed oak” is oak that has been darkened by exposure to ammonia — not a bad metaphor for Coward’s character.

The show concludes with Shadow Play. Unlike the first two plays, which deal with working class folk, Shadow Play delves into the lives of the rich and fashionable. (Coward was remarkably familiar with people of all stations in life.)

Julie Martell and Stephen Sutcliffe2

Julie Martell and Stephen Sutcliffe as Vicki and Simon in Shadow Play

In Red Peppers, vaudeville partners George and Lily Pepper had only each other to lean on. In Shadow Play, Vicky Gayforth (the exceptionally fetching Julie Martell) and her husband Simon (Stephen Sutcliffe again) are socialites who have forgotten why they needed each other in the first place. Simon is carrying on a notorious affair with Sibyl Heston (Robin Evan Willis again); Vicky is letting an infatuated young man pursue her, but hasn’t yet decided how far to let him go.

After Vicky and Simon have come back from a romantic play, Simon proposes that they divorce. But the desperately miserable Vicky has already taken extra sleeping pills, and the rest of the play is a drug-induced dream sequence, much of it in song, as Vicky relives their early romance. Julie Martell and Stephen Sutcliffe are fine duet partners (as they are in the Shaw Festival’s Sunday in the Park with George this summer, as well). The songs in Shadow Play are “Play, Orchestra, Play,” “Then,” and the melodic and memorable “You Were There.”

The backdrops for each of these one-act plays consist of scenes projected onto a screen (see the picture at the top of this post). These work very well and are especially effective during the fantasy sequences in Shadow Play.

Director Christopher Newton programmed a good many of Noël Coward’s full-length plays while he was the Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director. We hope the Shaw doesn’t take too long a break from Coward after this year. Surely, in a couple of years, it will be time for the Shaw to put on Cavalcade again — what an unforgettable show that was! And we’d really love to see The Vortex.

Emsworth reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

John Osborne’s The Entertainer (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)

Star Chamber at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Star Chamber ensembleWe wouldn’t for the world have missed Star Chamber, the one-act Noël Coward play that the Shaw Festival is putting on as its mid-day show this summer. It’s an absolutely hilarious send-up of self-absorbed actors at a committee meeting. This show starts at 11:30 a.m. and runs for about an hour at the Royal George Theater.

Here’s the storyline, such as it is: One by one, nine people arrive for a committee meeting that is to be held on the stage of a theater where one of them is performing. The nine are a board that is responsible for a old folks’ home for actresses. The serious-minded secretary of the board, Mr. Farmer (Guy Bannerman), who is the only non-actor on the board, is also the only the only one with any real interest in the business of the meeting, which is to consider some badly needed renovations to the home.

Neil Barclay

Neil Barclay

In fact, Mr. Farmer never can get the undisciplined actors to stop gossiping and pay attention to business. Johnny Bolton (Neil Barclay) constantly interrupts with old show business stories; no one listens to him. Dame Rose Maitland (Gabrielle Jones) cares mainly about taking the chair and bossing people around in the absence of the group’s president, Xenia (Fiona Byrne), who is late.

Buliung & broad

Evan Buliung and Fiona Byrne at the board meeting in Star Chamber

When the ditsy Xenia does arrive (looking and behaving very much like Barbra Streisand), she brings her Great Dane and gives it most of her attention. Eventually the actors give up any pretense of getting anything done and gather around the piano for a few songs.

The comic moments — sight gags, tart asides, self-important speeches, and actors playing to stereotype — start slowly, then come faster and faster. Our audience was reduced to continuous, helpless giggling about halfway through the show; we didn’t get control of ourselves till the curtain calls.

We marveled at their split-second timing of the ensemble. We certainly didn’t know any of Noël Coward’s show-business friends, on whom the play was presumably based, but how these characters reminded us of people we’ve met in community theater!

Sharry Flett & Stephen Sutcliffe

Sharry Flett with Stephen Sutcliffe in Sunday in the Park with George

We were glad to see Sharry Flett, who is still stunning, as a strong character again, rather than as a foggy old lady (her role this year in Sunday in the Park with George). Neil Barclay, born to play a ham, is precious as a rotund, veteran song-and-dance man.

The highlight of the songfest at the end was Evan Buliung’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” one of Coward’s best-known songs. (Buliung plays a dashing young actor, Julian Breed.) We were delighted to find, just before the show started, that Mr. Buliung’s parents were sitting next to us in the audience. They were very pleasant people who did not seem at all like stage parents and who were clearly very proud of their son (who is also starring in Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple at the Shaw Festival this summer). We are glad that Evan Buliung is back at the Shaw Festival this year after several years in Stratford (though what a fine Mark Antony he might have made in this year’s Julius Caesar).

Emsworth reviews of other 2009 shows at the Shaw Festival :

John Osborne’s The Entertainer (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)

Brief Encounters at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan 2

Love blooms in a railway coffee shop: Patrick Galligan and Deborah Hay in Still Life

The first of the several Noël Coward shows we’ll be seeing at the Shaw Festival this summer, Brief Encounters, was pure unadulterated pleasure, and we look forward to the others. These one-act plays are some of Coward’s very best work, and they’re presented intelligently and sympathetically.

Coward wrote these nine one-act plays in 1935 and called them Tonight at 8:30. He meant them to be performed as three separate shows of three plays each, but didn’t specify how they should necessarily be grouped. This particular show, directed by Jackie Maxwell, consists of a sequence of Still Life, We Were Dancing, and Hands Across the Show, three very different one-act plays that complement one another nicely. Ms. Maxwell directs it herself.

Krista Colosimo

Krista Colosimo is wonderful in the supporting role of Beryl in Still Life

The first and finest of the three is Still Life, a wistful story of a young married woman (Deborah Hay) and an idealistic young married doctor (Patrick Galligan) who meet by chance in an English railway station and let themselves drift into an affair. (Theirs is not exactly a “brief encounter”!) For as little time as we get to spend with them, we come to know the characters awfully well — not only the guilt-ridden lovers Laura and Alec, but also the middle-aged widow Myrtle Bagot (Corrine Koslo — sassy and delightfully vulgar), who runs the station’s coffee shop, her giddy young assistant Beryl (Krista Colosimo — just delightful), and Mrs. Bagot’s admirer Albert (Thom Marriott — marvelous), a porter, who provide comic relief. Working-class romances for Mrs. Bagot and Beryl serve as a foil to the main plot.

In one of our volumes of Coward, there is a pared-down version of Still Life that has only three characters. But the Shaw Festival’s production, with Mrs. Bagot, Beryl, and their admirers, is so much richer. 

Thom Marriott & Corrine Koslo

Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo in Still Life

We can’t think of any story, novel, or play that anatomizes the stages of a love affair quite so truthfully, painfully, and succinctly as Still Life. With a few deft strokes, Coward gives us the innocent first meeting of the lovers, their discovery of mutual sympathy, their “innocent” time together, their rationalizing, their secret liaisons and the exquisite pain of longing and guilt, and their inevitable confrontation with reality. As the illicit lovers, Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan approach their roles with delicacy and save the story from triteness. At the end, devastated by the end of her life’s great romance, Laura’s last goodbye in the train station is interrupted by the intrusion of an insensitive chatterbox acquaintance; this painful scene could not have been done better.

Still Life was the basis of a 1945 British movie called Brief Encounter, which explains why this Shaw Festival show is called Brief Encounters.  We were surprised to learn from our daughter-in-law that André Previn has just composed a new opera, also based on Coward’s play and also called Brief Encounter.  It premiered in Houston in early May 2009 to good reviews; see this link. We also recently learned, reading Garson Kanin’s memoir, Hollywood, that Brief Encounter was the inspiration for one of our favorite classic movies, The Apartment (starring Jack Lemmon).

Still Life represents Coward the sentimentalist. We were reminded of (and recommend) a favorite Coward short story, “Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill,” which has nothing to do with romance but which somehow evokes the same mood.

The second play, We Were Dancing, begins with a clever transformation of the set from a railway station to a South Sea island. (There is no intermission between the three one-act plays; instead, a break is taken halfway through We Were Dancing after a big song-and-dance number). This is the least substantial of these three plays in this show, but it has its moments.

Patrick Galligan

The silver-haired Galligan

The play is a sort of light fantasy; Louise, a married woman on a South Pacific cruise (Deborah Hay again) falls in love with a stranger (Patrick Galligan again) while dancing under the stars; they decide to spend the rest of their lives together before they even learn each other’s names. Just before intermission, the show breaks out into a riveting “We Were Dancing,” delivered by a large dance ensemble. The contemporary arrangement of Noël Coward’s song works very well.

Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan

Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan in a serious moment in Still Life

The final play, Hands Across the Sea, a satire of the London social scene of the 1930s, is pure farce. It takes place in the London apartment of Piggy (Deborah Hay again), a socialite who has just toured the far East and has met more people than she can remember. Her husband Peter (Patrick Galligan again) is a military officer whose duties are light.

Into their apartment come the Wadhursts (Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo again). Piggy met them in Singapore and invited them to visit her in London, but she has forgotten their names and doesn’t want to ask. In a side-splitting episode with Peter at the piano, he and Piggy sing in code to each other as they try to figure out who their guests are. The phone keeps ringing, Piggy’s and Peter’s friends keep wandering in and out, and everyone talks at the same time. We were in stitches.

Hands Across the Sea

The cast of Hands Across the Sea

After seeing this show, we pulled out the battered copy of Tonight at 8:30 that we found on eBay last winter and read Hands Across the Sea. To our surprise, the lines, isolated one from the other on the printed page, hardly seemed funny at all. It required a stage, the right ensemble, and the right timing and delivery to bring them to life.

One of the show’s pleasures is seeing the same actors in two or three contrasting roles within the course of a two-hour show. Of these, the transformation of Thom Marriott from railway station porter (Still Life) to philosophical cuckold (We Were Dancing) to staid Englishman (Hands Across the Sea) was the most remarkable. We have new appreciation for his abilities.

Can it be that the ensemble was lip-syncing during the We Were Dancing big production number? We wondered at the time, but couldn’t believe it possible at the Shaw Festival, where it’s often hard to tell whether they’re even using sound reinforcement. Then a Rochester friend who saw this show a few days later said that he suspected lip-syncing too. Say it isn’t so, Jackie Maxwell!

We gave in to celebrity spotting after the show. Sitting in our car in the Festival Theater parking lot, we saw actor Ben Carlson, formerly a Shaw Festival star but now at Stratford, drive up in a small car. After a minute or two, Deborah Hay emerged from the building and climbed in. We’ve read that they’re engaged.

August 18, 2009: We see that the New York Times has noticed that the Shaw is doing  Tonight at 8:30 (see this post), although the writer mostly talks about the history of these one-act plays and doesn’t say much about these performances.

Emsworth reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

John Osborne’s The Entertainer (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)