Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
21st Century society may have progressed considerably since the mid-1960s when Noël Coward wrote and starred in A Song At Twilight, but a cursory glance at today’s Hollywood makes it clear that even a half-century-old play can express contemporary truths, particularly when revived as splendidly as is the case this month and next at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Bruce Davison stars as renowned sexagenarian writer Sir Hugo Latymer, married for twenty years to his one-time secretary Hilde (Roxanne Hart), a matrimony based more on friendship and convenience than romantic love.
The truth of the above comes to light when Sir Hugo’s ex-paramour Carlotta (Sharon Lawrence) pays a twilight visit to to the Swiss hotel where he and Hilde are vacationing. Carlotta is, she informs Hugo, in the midst of penning her autobiography and would appreciate it if he would grant her permission to include the letters he wrote her at the time of their affair, if only to counter the impression left in his own memoir that their two years together were but a footnote in his life.
When Sir Hugo proves resistant to Carlotta’s request, the still youthful, still beautiful actress has no choice but to resort to a bit of blackmail. Should her former lover not allow her to include said letters, she will make public certain billets doux written by Sir Hugo to their mutual friend Perry Sheldon, a man they both well know was the love of Sir Hugo’s life.
Not surprisingly, Hugo expresses outrage, and not merely because he has spent his entire life maintaining the fiction of his heterosexuality, but because English law in 1966 still made homosexuality a criminal offense punishable by years of imprisonment.
Theatergoers familiar only with Coward’s more more frequently performed oeuvre (Private Lives, Blithe Spirit, Hay Fever) or even with lesser-known works like Fallen Angels, revived by the Playhouse to critical and popular acclaim a couple years back, will be surprised to find the playwright in considerably more dramatic mode this time round, though with Art Manke once again directing, Playhouse audiences are assured more than a few moments of Cowardian laughter despite the play’s more serious nature.
Though Coward is said to have based Sir Hugo on closeted English novelist Somerset Maugham, it’s impossible to watch Davison play the role originated by Coward himself without wondering how deeply personal this subject matter must have been for Sir Noël, who like both Maugham and A Song At Twilight’s protagonist, felt obliged to maintain a pretext of heterosexuality throughout his life, at least as far as the general public was concerned.
It is also impossible to hear Sir Hugo’s deeply-rooted fears of exposure without thinking of the 21st-Century Hollywood closet and the great pains to which today’s romantic and action film stars still keep their true sexuality behind closed doors.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Still, if A Song At Twilight proves another Pasadena Playhouse crowd-pleaser, it is first and foremost because Coward wrote three terrific parts for actors “of a certain age,” roles that Davison, Lawrence, and Hart fill to perfection.
Oscar nominee Davison completely vanishes inside Sir Hugo’s aging English skin, giving us a richly layered portrait of a man weakened by illness, troubled by guilt over past wrongs, and haunted by sorrow over a lost love which his own fears, many of them justified by the time he lived in, kept him from acknowledging.
Lawrence, whose superb recreation of stage-and-screen star Vivien Leigh in the Playhouse’s 2008 production of Orson’s Shadow won her accolades galore, including a Best Featured Actress Scenie, is once again sensational, making Carlotta far more than a glamorous villainess but imbuing her with wit, sophistication, and a surprising amount of warmth, plus that indefinable something called star quality.
L.A. theater treasure Hart (a Best Lead Actress Scenie winner for A Death In Columbia) makes the very most of her relatively briefer role as Hilde, a woman whose Teutonic steel is tempered by a wife’s unconditional love and a lioness’s protective instinct for the lion in winter that is Sir Hugo.
Last but not least, charismatic Zach Bandler takes what in less talented hands might end up a throw-away part, that of hotel bellhop Felix, and makes him the irresistibly charming object of Sir Hugo’s repressed desire, a brief, flirtatious exchange between the two men speaking volumes.
A Song At Twilight reunites Fallen Angels’ behind-the-scenes team, most notably director extraordinaire Manke, who proves himself as adept at elegant dramedy as he was with Angels’ physical comedy. Add to that Tom Buderwitz’s exquisitely detailed set (love the wallpaper and fireplace tiles), David Kay Mickelsen’s gorgeous, color-coordinated ’60s costumes (Lawrence is simply stunning in burnt amber), and Diana Ben-Kiki’s intricately styled wigs, all of the above sublimely lit by Peter Maradudin, with sound designer Steven Cahill’s sophisticated original music completing the design package, and you have a production that would do Broadway proud.
Deborah Aquila, CSA, and Tricia Wood, CSA, are casting directors. (Kudos once again to Sheldon Epps and the Pasadena Playhouse for recognizing and appreciating the worth of our Los Angeles talent pool.) Julie Haber is production stage manager, Joe Witt general manager/production manager, Brad Enlow techincal director, and Kristen Hammack company manager.
As exciting as it was to discover a World Premiere script in the Pasadena Playhouse’s recent Above The Fold, it proves equally thrilling to rediscover the talents of one of the true greats of the 20th Century in a play that is no mere period piece, but a fascinating look at how much, and how little, we have changed in the intervening fifty years. This is a twilight song well worth a listen and a Noël Coward gem well worth a look-see.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
March 25, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont