Somewhere, sipping a celestial cocktail perhaps, Noel Coward is smiling. Thursday marked the 100th anniversary of the famed British playwright and performer’s birth, and in celebration, Coward is posthumously receiving the kind of birthday present that would have pleased him most: a hit show. That this gift should come in the guise of one of his later, most roundly dismissed plays, 1960’s “Waiting in the Wings,” makes the triumph all the sweeter.
It’s a victory against significant odds. “Waiting” was harshly panned by London critics upon its West End debut. To read the reviews “was like being slashed repeatedly in the face,” as Coward vividly put it. He always had doubted the American appeal of a play about a home for retired English actresses, and “Waiting” never made it to New York after its disappointing London run.
Early Boston reviews of the current Broadway production, headlined by Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris, were no less dire. But in a reversal that seems, aptly enough, to bring back a bygone Broadway era, “Waiting” arrives in Gotham in wonderful shape. Director Michael Langham and playwright Jeremy Sams, who is credited rather obscurely with “revisiting” Coward’s play, have molded the production into a charming showcase for a tremendously gifted cast, including a dozen or so actresses “of a certain age” who contribute funny, affecting and meticulously defined performances that turn a slick but trifling piece of writing into a rewarding evening of theater.
A half-hour judiciously has been lopped off the play’s Boston running time. What’s left, in any case, isn’t really vintage Coward. “Waiting” is the 1960 equivalent of a situation comedy. Coward assembles a cast of diversely typed characters, in this case retired English actresses and their caretakers, and sets them down in a closed environment, a charity home called the Wings.
As the ladies reminisce, chatter and wisecrack, you can feel the playwright floundering for a plot, and settling for a trio of subplots: the feud between longtime resident May Davenport (Harris) and new arrival Lotta Bainbridge (Bacall); the ladies’ cherished desire to build a solarium, and the undercover journalist who ruffles their feathers but ultimately comes to their aid; and the rapprochement between Lotta and her estranged son Alan (Anthony Cummings). (The play congeals painfully in the second act around the latter vignette.)
There are lines in “Waiting” that are merely second-rate recyclings of previous Cowardisms, as when Lotta dismisses Toronto as “terribly Canadian.” But there are also fresher ones: “Give her a door and she’ll go through it,” cracks one resident of May’s grand way with an exit. And even at less than his best, Coward was a playwright of superior taste, wit and feeling. Those attributes are amply displayed in “Waiting,” which gently skirts stereotypes and treads lightly outside the door of sentimentality — only occasionally poking its head in for a look.
Most useful here is Coward’s ability to create distinct characters with just a few brush strokes. An actor himself, Coward knew what must be put on the page and what could safely be left to the talents of the performer. And so, with sometimes mere minutes of stage time, the expertly assembled cast of this production turns virtually every role into a precise, vividly realized portrait.
In the most overtly comic part, Helena Carroll is marvelous as a truculent Irishwoman stomping stolidly around the drawing room and confidently predicting doom at every turn. Slightly less acerbic, but also superbly drawn, is Rosemary Murphy’s Cora Clarke, dryly deflating others’ attempts at optimism. Archie, the ex-Army battle ax who runs the home, is played with vigorous, zesty affection by Dana Ivey, who movingly undercuts Archie’s martial ways with quiet intimations of deep sympathy with her charges.
The sunnier residents of the Wings include Patricia Connolly’s endearingly cheerful and gently touching Maudie Melrose, hopping to the piano whenever it’s called for, and seemingly forever reliving a latter-day triumph in something called “Miss Mouse.” (The red dye that clings desperately to the tips of Maudie’s gray hair has a pathos all its own, a lovely touch from wig and hair designer Mitch Ely.) The ever-fine Elizabeth Wilson’s Bonita Belgrave likewise turns a stalwart face to the world, attempting endlessly to turn Bette Henritze’s woeful Almina Clare away from the recollection that it is she who instigated the desire for a solarium that obsesses the ladies.
Helen Stenborg is riveting in her two scenes of high humor as the doddering, pyromaniacal Sarita Myrtle. Sarita is almost entirely lost in the past now, imagining her companions to be co-stars. “It’s been a lovely engagement,” she says with a gentle, faintly patronizing tone as she is taken away to a sanitarium.
Emerging variously in all of these performances are the vestiges of the prides and vanities of the ladies’ professional years as well as their uncertain glances at the ultimate curtain call that awaits.
There’s plenty of technique brought to bear on these portraits in miniature, but there may be something else at work, too. Roles for “mature” actresses in Broadway plays are scarce indeed (on our teen-obsessed TV screens, of course, they’re all but extinct). And so these women seem to be distilling a lifetime of experience, study and pleasure in their craft into these performances, turning them into small but indelible treasures that remain strangely incandescent in the memory.
Headliners Bacall and Harris certainly have their work cut out for them on a stage enlivened by such fine work, which also includes excellent turns by Barnard Hughes, Simon Jones, Amelia Campbell and Crista Moore (playing the invading journo, and rising above a costume that makes her look like a human riding crop).
Bacall meets the challenge mostly by coasting on her indisputable star presence. To be fair, her role is a fairly bland one, and Bacall uses her inimitable, chilly drawl to powerhouse effect on some of Coward’s crisper witticisms. Elsewhere she relies on line readings that emphasize the generic contours of her dialogue. She is best, paradoxically, in the play’s deadliest scene, a cliche-ridden emotional tug of war between Lotta and her son (Cummings looks as if he knows how thankless his role is).
Harris, a performer of innately regal presence, also can communicate a grave sort of warmth, and those characteristics are perfectly suited to her role here as an actress of punctilious dignity in reduced circumstances. She is marvelously economical, using the finest of inflections to suggest May’s changing attitudes toward Lotta, who she believes stole her husband three decades back. And Harris’ endlessly eloquent elocution can turn the tiniest fragments of Coward’s pleasingly absurd dialogue — “Why a zither?” to be precise — into a comic essay.
Harris’ eminently graceful turn is emblematic of Langham’s production, which is full of thoughtful touches — the water stain on the ceiling of Ray Klausen’s cozy set, for instance, bespeaks careful affection for the play’s kindly virtues, which were easy to overlook in an age dazzled by the more aggressive ones of Osborne, Pinter and Beckett.
A minor work from a comic master, the play is a formulaic but nonetheless heartfelt tribute to the art of the actress, and in their thoughtful, immensely spirited performances, the actresses of Broadway’s “Waiting in the Wings” pay equally heartfelt tribute to Coward himself.