August 15, 2008 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
Sir Noel Coward’s final stage work, Noel Coward in Two Keys, composed of a pair of one act comedies, is an unexpected joy. It is the final main stage production of the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s 80th summer season.
The two comedies, Come into the Garden Maud and A Song at Twilight both are set in the private suite of the Hotel Beau Rivage, Lausanne-Ouchy, Switzerland in the mid 1960s.
The plots are unrelated but the same four actors are cast in each play and only the hotel waiter, Felix (Gian Murray Gianino) appears in a the same role in both plays.
The two plays are of special interest because they mark the end of a fifty year career of writing for the theatre. They were produced in London for the first time in 1966, shortly before Coward’s death, under the direction of Vivian Matalon who also directed them in Manhattan in 1974 and who has directed this production.
Coward’s distinctive style, crisp dialog, witty repartee, clear, spare prose, and distinctive, mainly witty sophisticated characters, are all present in these plays, but, writing at the end of his career, he has added something more. While they remain comedies, they are deeper and a bit darker than those plays of gay banter and physical mayhem, such as Private Lives, written decades earlier, and these later plays concern more mature characters.
In the lighter of the two plays, Come into the Garden Maud, Verner Conklin (Casey Biggs) and his wife Anna, (Mia Dillon), rich, middle-aged Americans, are “doing” Europe. Amiable, laid-back Verner would prefer to be back in America and has no interest in the social ambitions of his spouse, a flighty self-important, social-climber.
But an old friend of Anna’s, Maud Caraganania, the charmingly energetic Maureen Anderman, drops by briefly on her way to drive off to Rome and see her first grandchild. And lives are changed forever.
A Song At Twilight stars the same three characters in a more complex plot, still witty and sophisticated but concerning the public baring of long kept secrets in their lives. Each of the three also play a character far-removed from that he or she played in the opening play.
Biggs is a celebrated esteemed British author, regal, if grumpy in his smoking jacket. Dillon is again a wife in this play but instead of a nagging empty-headed one, she is a loving but realistic German woman who has protected her husband for twenty years.
And Anderman is a regal, successful British actress, known and loved in the Western world, and about to publish her autobiography. She appears on the scene trying to manipulate a startling revelation of materials long hidden concerning the characters’ private lives.
To reveal more of the plots, especially that of the second play, would be a disfavor to audience members rather unlikely to have seen either. The second is not a tragedy but by the end it is deeply serious and its subject matter is significant, coming from Coward at that particular time.
Brilliantly acted by the three participants, the current production is a moving tribute to Coward. Matalon’s direction is impeccable.
Of special importance, considering the subject matter, it is significant that in the London production Coward himself played the role of the writer, a character who is so enchantingly Noel Coward, a writer, who during his career had to cope with a strict moral code in the British licensing of subject matter.
Just as his own songs have ornamented his plays, so do the two titles of these two swan song-plays seem to me to be Coward having his last fun with words, scoffing at prudery and coming out with just a song at twilight.
I found him and them enchanting. You will too.