Q: Where can you see 4 dozen of the finest actors in the country performing live and
on stage 8 one-act plays by legendary playwright/song writer Noel Coward?

A: At Antaeus Company’s twin productions of Tonight At 8:30 Parts 1 and 2.

Antaeus Company’s actors are among the busiest in our city, so Antaeus double
casts its productions, allowing these talented performers time off to make some real
money in film or TV. Thus, the performers mentioned in this review may not be those
you see, but regardless of which cast performs, you are in for a great evening or
afternoon of theater. (And you will most likely never see an understudy. If an actor
has to miss a performance, as two did yesterday, the actor assigned to his/her roles
in the other cast simply steps in to take his/her place.)

Tonight At 8:30: Part 1 (aka If Love were All) begins even before the
announcement “the house is open.” Various cast members are already on stage as
the audience enters, singing along to Coward song classics (like “Why do the
wrong people travel, travel, travel, When the right people stay back home?,”
“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” and “Don’t put your daughter
on the stage Mrs. Worthington.” At the performance I attended, Devon Sovari
sang an especially lovely “Someday I’ll find you again,” accompanied by Matthew
Goldsby on piano.

Star Chamber (directed by William Ludel) opens the evening, as a bunch of actors
and other theater people meet in committee to vote on building a new wing (to an
orphanage as I recall). The “plot” is secondary to the characters and the witty
dialogue. There’s a John Barrymore type, a veteran song-and-dance man, a grande
dame, a flighty blonde actress, a very rich society matron, etc., each with his/her
own problem to complain about.

There are laughs galore.

–It’s an absolutely fool-proof part for me.
–It would have to be.

–(Overjoyed to see her friend) Violet! I thought you were dead!

–If I had children, I should let them run wild in the woods all year round…naked!

–For God’s sake, don’t sit where I can see you!

At the performance I saw, the marvelous “Mad Dogs” cast performed to perfection.
(Mad Dogs=Armin Shimerman, Josh Clark, Sovari, Philip Proctor, Amelia White, JD
Cullum, Melinda Peterson, Jeanie Hackett, Christina Pickles, and Ryan Spahn.) Bill
Brochtrup of the “Englishmen” cast filled in for an absent Mad Dog cast membe and
Bravo, an apparently adorably doggie, apparently got his performance times mixed
up and had to be replaced by a stuffed pooch, doubling the laughter whenever he
was spoken about.

Next up—We Were Dancing (directed by Michael Murray), which features the type
of veddy veddy sophisticated Londoners that people Coward’s classic farce Private
Lives. Here a wife announces to her husband (about a man she has only just met)
“We have fallen in love,” to which her at-first-sight paramour adds meaningfully,
“Deeply,” though it is soon revealed that she hasn’t even found out his name yet.
How did this coup de foudre take place? “Suddenly, when we were dancing, an
enchantment swept over me,” she explains. As this one-act takes place in less than
24 hours time, love does fade rather more quickly than usual, for not much later she is
asking, “Where did the magic go?”  Delightful.

Nike Doukas was especially winning as the wife with the roving eye, though in fact so
too were all her costars: Bernard White, Josh Clark, Amelia White, JD Cullum, Armin
Shimerman, and Ryan Spahn, plus Kirsten Potter from the Englishmen cast.

After intermission, and a fine performance of “If Love Were All” by Cullum, the comic
tone of Act 1 was replaced by a very different Noel Coward, a playwright clearly as
adept at drama as he was at comedy.

The Astonished Heart (directed by Stephanie Shroyer) begins on a late afternoon in
November with Leonora’s arrival at Barbara and Christian’s home. Chris lies dying in
another room, and has been calling for Leonora “in those brief moments” when he is
conscious. We then move back in time (aided marvelously by John Zalewski’s sound
and Jose Lopez’s lighting) to a year earlier.  Leonora, “the nastiest girl in school but
the best King Lear,” is visiting former school chum Barbara, married for the past
twelve years to Chris, an eminent psychiatrist (though Leonora plays dumb and asks
how Chris’s job differs from that of a chiropractor).  “I have made up my mind to fall
in love with him on the spot,” Leonora announces, and in short order Chris is unable
to live without her. When Barbara, attempting to be “adult” about the matter, asks
Chris how much longer it will last, he reveals the depth of his obsession. “I’m
submerged now,” he tells her.  “I can’t tell.” When Leonora loses interest, obsession
turns to insanity.

The Astonished Heart offers its romantic triangle of actors the chance to strut their
dramatic stuff, and all three meet the challenge exquisitely, Jeannie Hackett as the
betrayed but understanding wife, Kirsten Potter from the Englishmen cast as the
seductive and cruel Leonora, and most especially Bernard White, whose sudden
rages erupt from a possessed soul. Potter and White, who share several passionate
and emotional scenes deserve special credit for doing such fine work despite having
rehearsed and performed with different partners. (Faye Grant normally plays
opposite White and Potter plays opposite Michael Reilly Burke.)

The evening concludes on a bright and farcical note with the delightful Hands
Across the Sea (directed by Michael Murray), which has the same outrageous humor
found in Saturday Night Live sketches, but with Noel Coward wit and charm. A
husband and wife (Peter and Piggy) await the visit of an expatriate couple they
met on a world trip. “We swore we’d give them a lovely home when they came
home on leave,” says the wife, who has invited friends over to impress the couple
(freshly arrived from Malaya). Silly, delightful fun indeed, the punch line being that
the overseas couple turn out not to be the people Peter and Piggie were expecting
after all.

The superb ensemble of Hands Across the Sea was made up of Devon Sorvari, Nike
Doukas, Josh Clark, Christina Pickles, Melinda Peterson, Phil Proctor, Ryan Spahn, and
JD Cullum, plus Ned Shmidtke from the Englishmen cast.

Special mention must be made of the subtly hilarious work of young Spahn.  
Portraying Mr. Burnham, a messenger who arrives with a roll of documents to deliver,
As the other characters enter, Mr. Burnham takes a seat next to the wall and stays
there, quite ill at ease and unnoticed until the playlet ends, though at least he is
given a martini. The “business” Spahn has created for himself is far too subtle to be
called scene stealing but well worth casting an eye over to from time to time. Kudos.

A. Jeffrey Schoenberg is fast becoming one of L.A.’s period costumers extraordinaire,
following his gorgeous mid-19th century costumes in The Count of Monte Cristo with
a bevy of elegant 1930s outfits, and John Iacovelli has designed simple but effective
sets utilizing period-appropriate furnishings.

Tracy Winters coached the cast on their impeccable British accents, supporting my
theory that English actors are no better than their American counterparts. It’s all in
the accent, and I personally delight in being “fooled” into thinking that Yank actors
are really Brits, thanks only to some effective vowel shifts.  It’s worth sticking around
the stage door after the performance just to hear how marvelously they’ve
managed to make us think that they’re all future Dames and Sirs.

I look forward to seeing Tonight at 8:30 Part 2 next Sunday, and will try to return to
see both programs again with the alternate casts.  (It’s a treat to be able to see
how different actors approach the same characters and make parts their own.)

Part II of its Noel Coward one-act retrospective is entitled Tonight at 8:30:
Come The Wild, and like Part I, these four little-known Coward treats
comprise an entertaining and beautifully acted evening of theater.

John Iacovelli’s set design for the first play, Red Peppers (directed by Stefan
Novinski), takes us to a backstage dressing room where members of a
vaudeville troupe are singing along to Coward’s “Why Must the Show Go
On?” (accompanied by Glen Banks at the piano).

“Why not announce the closing night of it? The public seem to hate the sight
of it. Pack up your talent. There’s always plenty more. And if you lose hope,
take dope and lock yourself in the John. Why must the show go on? I’m
merely asking. Why must the show go on?”

We then meet John Prosky and Rhonda Aldrich (all parts are double cast, so
you may be seeing different actors in these and other roles) as a Cockney
vaudeville couple who, after performing a song and dance number in
vintage sailor suits, find themselves back in their dressing room exchanging

He: You mucked up the exit.  Nobody else did.  Why can’t you admit it?
She: You make me sick, sucking up to the topliners. The act was good
enough for Mom and Dad, and it’s good enough for you!”

Comic tensions rise another notch when the orchestra conductor (Philip
Proctor), then the theater owner (Ned Schmidtke), and finally a granddame
of the theater (Anne Gee Byrd) arrive to join in the fight.

Prosky and Aldrich especially prove themselves to be triple-threat performers,
tap dancing and singing with the best (choreography by Kay Cole),
supported by delightful turns by Proctor, Byrd, and Schmidtke.

Though not at the level of Coward classics like Private Lives (it actually
reminded me of a Saturday Night Live sketch), Red Peppers nonetheless
entertains.  Besides, any play with lines like “Never trust a man with short
legs.  Their brains are too near their bottoms,” is A-OK in my book.

Next up is Fumed Oak (directed by Robert Goldsby), in which Coward
envisaged a sit-com ready dysfunctional family decades before All in the
Family.  Chubby pigtailed daughter Elsie (Katy Tyszkiewicz), frazzled mother
Doris (Kitty Swink), and cantankerous grandma Mrs. Rockett (Lynn Milgrim)
exchange grievances while Henry (aka Dad) sits silently reading his
newspaper, seemingly oblivious of the surrounding racket.  Not for long,
though, for in the second scene, Dad has finally had enough of his wife, his
“horrid child,” and his “bitch of a mother-in-law,” and the four actors get the
chance to prove what masters of physical comedy they are.

Still Life is next up, after intermission, directed by Stephanie Shroyer, who also
directed Part I’s The Astonished Heart.  While nowhere near as dramatic as
that play, Still Life too is the story of an adulterous affair.  (If Still Life’s plot
seems familiar, an IMDB check reveals it to be the basis of Brief Encounter,
the 1945 Noel Coward/David Lean film classic.) 

Alec (John Prosky), a married doctor, meets equally married Laura (Alicia
Wollerton) when a bit of dust gets in her eye at a train station refreshment
room and he removes it for her.  Shared tea and conversation lead to
another meeting, and another, until they can no longer deny their love.  
Surrounding this doomed pair of lovers are two comic couples, older waitress
Myrtle (Anne Gee Byrd) and train conductor Albert (Josh Clark, from the
alternate cast), and pert and pretty Beryl (Devon Sovari) and her handsome
young suitor Stanley (Adam Meyer). 

What impresses most in Still Life is Coward’s ability to move seamlessly from
comedy to drama and back again.  Amidst the antics of the couples around
them, Prosky and Wollerton do beautiful restrained work as a couple who
know that the only future they share is an eventual, definitive goodbye.

Rhonda Aldrich as Laura’s friend Dolly (who makes a most ill-timed
appearance at the station), and Nathan Patrick and Bill Brochtrup as a pair
of flirtatious soldiers, complete the fine ensemble for arguably the best of the
evening’s four one-acts.

Up last is Family Album (directed by Brendon Fox), a black comedy which
takes us back to the Victorian Era. (We see this time switch as several of the
actresses in Still Life add floor length skirts to their 1930s ensembles while other
actors move furniture behind them, changing the set to the drawing room
of a London flat.)

Family Album might be described as Merchant-Ivory meets Monty Python
meets Gilbert and Sullivan.  Eight family members dressed in mourning have
returned from the funeral of the family patriarch. (“Perhaps he was
watching us from somewhere above the trees,” declares one of them
wistfully.)  As the toasts become more frequent, the mood becomes
considerably more jovial, and the characters begin to sing about each
other, a passing squirrel (don’t ask), and their doddering hard-of-hearing
servant Charles. The drunker they get, the more family secrets are revealed,
in a play that is droll indeed.

Family Album’s crackerjack ensemble are Alicia Wollerton, Anne Gee Byrd,
Devon Sorvari, Adam Meyer, Josh Clark, John Prosky, Nathan Patrick, Bill
Brochtrup, Katy Tyszkiewsicz, and Rhonda Aldrich.

Scenic designer Iacovelli, in addition to the aforementioned theater dressing
room, has created three other impressive sets, against a black curtained
backdrop.  The train station refreshment room is especially well-rendered,
and transforms before our eyes into the family Gilpin’s Victorian drawing-
room.  Jose Lopez’ lighting is effective; even more so is John Zalewski’s sound
design, especially in Still Life, where the ominous roar of passing trains provides
an appropriate backdrop to the adulterous couple’s doomed romance. 
Finally, A. Jeffrey Schoenberg has designed a few dozen fine period
costumes, from the vaudeville song and dance team’s sailor suits, to the
drab middle-class garb of the Fumed Oak family, to the black crepe of the
Gilpin family’s mourning.  One complaint: Why does Still Life’s Laura wear the
same outfit in April, July, October, December, and March of the following
year?  Doesn’t she have at least one change of clothing?

Other than this minor gripe, and the fact that the four plays run a good two
hours and forty five minutes (a bit on the long side), I found Come the Wild a
thoroughly entertaining evening of theater, and plan to return later in the
run to catch, among others, the performances of Gigi Bermingham, Ramon
DeOcampo, and Angela Goethals, personal favorites from 2005’s most
memorable production, Pera Palas, as well as Emily Eiden, Laura Wernette,
and the always marvelous Shannon Holt.

For fans of Noel Coward, and even for the uninitiated, Tonight at Eight, both
Parts I and II, are likely to provide two evenings of witty and winning
theater. (Antaeus Sundays feature a 2 part “marathon,” with Part I running
at 3:00 and Part II at 7:30.)

Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
November 4 & 11, 2007
Photos: Michele K. Short

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