Fallen Angels,by Noel Coward. Directed by Kate Gulliver. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"I hate jokes. . .bitterly."
Cathy Lee-Vischer and Christina Reeves; photo: provided
Bravo to Kate Gulliver for choosing one of Noel Coward's funniest one-joke comedies to direct at the Ghent Playhouse. The one-joke is the premise of the play: two women, best friends, both married for about five years, have each had one affair and with the same Frenchman, who suddenly reappears in their lives after a seven year gap. Playwright Noel Coward builds everything else onto this idea including the delicacy of friendship in both the womens and their husbands relationships. Coward withholds the genial gentleman from France until the final moments of the play and, in this production, he is well worth the wait.
Mark Wilson plays Maurice Duclos with a genteel and sophisticated style that is apparent in none of the other participants and so he is a breath of fresh air during his brief, yet poignant, scene. Well dressed by costume designer Joanne Maurer, Wilson's gallic good humor and quick understanding of the scene laid out before him in which chaos is reigning (and/or raining down) on the two married couples and a maid makes the final moments of this comedy that much more fun. He also, in this production, has the most difficult line to speak when he says to Mark Carway playing Fred Sterroll, "It would help, Monsieur, if you were not so angry." Carway seems not to be angry at all and that is the final proof of the difficulty of this show.
Mark Carway as the husband in whose apartment the play is set is a handsome man with a pleasant voice and an even more pleasant demeanor. He is not able to present as angry, jealous, disappointed or really anything but bored. His performance is the weak link in the production and the humor would be so much higher level if he could present the character of Fred as even hurt by his wife's revealed secrets.
Playing Fred's golf partner and neighbor, Willy Banbury, is Mark Fingar who does a much better job with his role. He, at least, manages to be upset with his wife's sudden disappearance. He is demanding and a bit coarse but he is believable as Willy which helps in the third act of the play. (Note the comic casting coup here - all three male characters are played by a man named Mark!)
As for the three women, director Kate Gulliver's choices are so much better indeed, Kathy Marin Wohlfield plays Saunders, the maid. She is delightful, if a bit under-directed. Too often she seems to have been left to find her way around the stage and once is actually directed to circumnavigate the entire stage for no apparent reason. Wohlfield delivers solidly in the darker and in the more comic moments of the play, however, and is a wonderful addition to the cast.
Christina Reeves is Jane Banbury. She plays haughty beautifully. She plays wanton even better, although her make-up choice in the final scene is unexplained it does allow for all sorts of speculation on the part of the audience about her true character. She handles Coward's style as well as anyone I've seen in recent years.
Cathy Lee-Visscher plays the other half of the title roles, Julia Sterroll, with a definite diamond-like brilliance. In stunning costumes she moves through the hilarious idiocy of the plot like a queen on her way to the coronation of a rival. She never misses a laugh, yet spouts the funny lines with clarity and reality and makes us see that Julia has no idea she is humorous. This is perfect playing for Coward.
None of the actors uses much of an accent and the outcome is that instead of being British upperclass, they are Americans on the loose in pretentious social circles. The touches of accent come across almost as funny, therefore, as the lines spoken and somehow that works to the advantage of the play.
The stage set by Sam Reilly is handsome and appropriate. Maurer's costumes are what they need to be and sometimes more. Hair and makeup by Chandra Knotts looked really good. The lighting needs work. Upstage windows, heavily curtained, could reveal time of day which would be nice.
Fallen Angels is not done very often and contains some gems of funny writing. At the Ghent Playhouse most of them are delivered in the best way possible and get their laughs. This is a light evening of enjoyable theater and, if you are a Noel Coward enthusiast, you get to hear one of his most unusual and least heard musical compositions, Meme Les Anges, rescued for this production through the effort of Playhouse member Judy Staber. For that alone it is worth the price of a ticket.
Fallen Angels plays at the Ghent Playhouse on Route 66 west of Chatham, NY through October 26. For information and tickets call the box office at 1-800-838-3006 or go on line at ghentplayhouse.org.