NoŽl Coward in Two Keys by NoŽl Coward. Directed by Vivian Matalon.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"My private inclinations are not the concerns of the reading public."
Maureen Anderman and Casey Biggs in "Come Into the Garden, Maud"; photo: Kevin Sprague
Playwright, composer, actor Sir NoŽl Coward undertook the journey of completion late in his life by writing three plays in which to return to the London stage. The year was 1966 and his brand of sophistication was already outdated. The young middle-aged man who wrote and performed in "Private Lives" thirty-six years earlier was now an old man and he required a vehicle that would show him off, present his best side. He began with a long two-scene play which could easily be played as a two act vehicle and he called it "A Song at Twilight." Not completely satisfied with it he wrote a lighter, airier curtain raiser entitled "Come Into the Garden, Maude." Still not where he wanted to be he composed a third play, "Shadows of the Evening." Now the show was too long and he split it into consecutive evenings and appeared with Lilli Palmer and Irene Worth. Directed by Vivian Matalon, the shows played under the title "Suite in Three Keys", and were well received bringing about the revival of interest in Cowardís works after long years of neglect and a lot of sniggering by the young bucks of the British theater.
Coward died in 1973 and the following year his "Suite" plays were finally brought to Broadway, again directed by Matalon, but reduced to a single evening of two plays ("Shadows of the Evening" bit the dust). In New York in 1974 the shows starred Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy and Ann Baxter. Flash forward to 2008 and here we are again with Matalon bringing the "Two Keys" version to the Berkshire Theatre Festival to end the companyís 80th anniversary season.
There are no true major stars in this edition of the play. Rather than focusing on personalities the plays are asked to stand on their own. In a very unusual way it seems a good thing that the same director who started them on their way has been able to shepherd them to this destination. He has been there for Coward and Cronyn, two strong and very different personalities. Another director might have ventured into one of those two stylistic pathways to replicate, or imitate, what came before. Matalon has not done that and, in fact, the three actors who take the six central characters play them vitally differently than their forebears did and that is the one of the very good things about this edition of the show.
In "...Maud" the Conklins, Verner and Anna Mary are played by Casey Biggs and Mia Dillon. Maud herself is played by Maureen Anderman. In "...Twilight" the roles of Sir Hugo Latymer and his wife Hilde are played by Biggs and Dillon and the actress Carlotta Gray is assumed by Anderman. Felix the hotel waiter is played in both pieces by Gian Murray Gianino. Both plays consider the futures of men who have lived lies and must face the realities they have buried within themselves.
Biggs and Dillon play the ugly Americans in Europe to a fare-thee-well in the first play. She is preparing to host a dinner for royalty in the Hotel Beau Rivage bar and dining room in Lausanne-Ouchy, Switzerland where they are residing temporarily. He has money, loves golf and just stretching out on a couch and she has all the pretensions and artifices that make such women into the gorgons we expect them to be, especially when aroused. A sudden visit from Maud Caragnini, a Sicilian princess they have met in their travels, completely alters the event, the evening and the Conklinís destiny. Biggs is a perfect picture of American manliness in this play. He blusters, calls people "sweetheart," refers to all drinks as "booze," and is generally irritating and embarassing to his spouse. Dillon is shrill, ugly, overbearing, over-dressed and poorly coifed and she is as funny a figure as you can imagine. The two of them, good as they are, come off as caricatures of Americans, Americans as perceived by Europeans. They play these parts too well and even the best comic moments and witty lines afforded them by Coward emerge as parodies of themselves. You cannot help but laugh, while all the while you wish you wouldnít, didnít have to, and that these folks would just go away.
Things change in his playing when he is left alone with Andermanís princess. She conveys the simple sophistication of even the most down-trodden upperclasses. Her character lives and breathes and she transposes that effect onto Biggsí character in their scenes together, leaving Dillon to tromp on alone as the sole comic figure in the first fifty minute play.
In the second half of the evening things are markedly different. Biggs plays a sophisticated British author, ostensibly based on Max Beerbohm and also Somerset Maugham, but in reality an open exposure by Coward of his own cowardly existence. Here he gets to play, at an advanced age, a typical Coward male, haughty, self-righteous, self-important, witty and sharp, mean and romantic. He pulls this off beautifully managing to do everything the play anticipates for the mind, but never quite touching the heart.
Dillon, as his long-suffering German refugee wife, is very good here. Her second scene, when she returns after dinner gave her many moments where she could take center stage and exhibit the tenderness we pray her Hilde can provide his Hugo. Dillon does this expertly and she gets every nuance just right.
Anderman as the intruder from his past who brings exposure of long withheld truths is just brilliant. Every line, every gesture shows us the depth of her emotions. She is able to pull back when that is needed and to refrain from too much show of conflicting reactions to his stubbornness. She can be sweetly romantic, even lush for a moment and then switch instantly to the sharp jab in his psychological ribs. It is as though, in their time together, they are the Amanda and Elyot of Cowardís "Private Lives" grown old, seen forty years later. She has known his secret since their early days and she throws it in his face, expecting the denial that comes, witnessing the breaking of Dillonís heart as she confesses that his secret has never been a secret at all.
Here we see the Coward who in his old age remarked, "Homosexuality is becoming as normal as blueberry pie," a quote from one of his earliest hit plays, "The Vortex." But when he brought that line back into fashion during the run of his "Suite" plays he was doing much more than commenting on the times in which he lived. He was allowing his audience to reach into places he had always hidden, or thought he had hidden, from them. In "A Song at Twilight" he learns that his secret, his characterís and his own, has never been far from the surface.
Gianino does fine as the waiter whose line, "At your service," has so many meaning I wonít even begin to go into them.
R. Michael Miller has provided Matalon and his players with a lovely set, with muted colors that allow the performers to shimmer under Ken Billingtonís lights. David Murinís sense of humor comes out in the costumes, particularly Dillonís first act clothing and Sir Hugoís elegant, if seedy, smoking jacket.
Hopefully the director has finally found all of the answers, the "$64,000 answers" that this play has long sought. Finally in the hands of legitimate actors who bring no long, flaunted, high-fame history to the parts the characters in both plays have a chance to be seen for who they are and not for who is playing them. It takes a Coward to write about the secrets we hide. It takes a brave man to face them.
Mia Dillon and Maureen Anderman in "A Song at Twilight"; photo: Kevin Sprague
Anderman; photo: Kevin Sprague
NoŽl Coward in Two Keys plays through August 30 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA. Ticket prices range from $23 - $68. For information and tickets contact the box office at 413-298-5576.