Noel Coward’s reputation is not having an easy time of it this season in Gotham: After the charming but creaky “Waiting in the Wings” comes another American premiere of a late Coward work, the one-acts “Shadows of the Evening” and “A Song at Twilight,” under the umbrella title of “Noel Coward’s Suite in 2 Keys.” (The plays were first staged in London in 1966 along with “Come into the Garden Maud” as “A Suite in Three Keys.”)
Under the direction of John Tillinger, “Shadows of the Evening” is significant for a couple of reasons: It serves as a perfect lesson in why the Osborne and Orton generation needed to rid the English theater of such pompous drawing-room bunk.
It also gives us the remarkable New York stage debut of Hayley Mills, who is never less than heartbreaking even when Coward burdens her with platitudes of self-sacrifice that went out with Norma Shearer over two decades earlier.
To put it bluntly, “Shadows of the Evening” is bottom-drawer Coward. The mistress (Judith Ivey) of wealthy publisher George (Paxton Whitehead) has called his long-suffering wife Anne (Mills) from her home in England to their hotel suite in Lausanne, Switzerland. (James Noone’s art deco stage design is sumptuous, and everybody should be so lucky to receive the ultimate bad news in this setting.)
Yes, George is dying, rather rapidly as it turns out, and because the three principals onstage are English, they quickly agree that “we have to come to some arrangement.”
It’s all so terribly civilized that George’s doctor has obligingly told him, “There will be no pain” when he finally expires. In the end, all George really needs is for the two women in his life “to tide me over the inevitable moments of weakness.”
“Shadows” is the kind of play wherein the wife Anne travels with an evening gown but forgets to bring enough money for the casino. Mills performs without apologies, and keeps a threshold of healthy resentment in ample reserve just under her decorous yet steely surface. Hers is the only impersonation of a human being onstage.
Ivey’s Linda tells her dying lover, “You still love Anne.” And she gets to hear him reply, “I never pretended I didn’t.” It’s inconceivable that the miscast Ivey, with her no-nonsense Yankee persona, would tolerate this treatment past the first round of cocktails.
Paxton gives a perfect parody of the hand-on-the-mantel school of acting, and somehow finds a way to perform in profile for at least 45 minutes straight. He leaves little doubt that the exquisitely tailored tuxedo will fit his corpse perfectly.
Oddly enough, the actor appears a decade or two more decrepit in “A Song at Twilight,” even though there are no intimations of a rapidly impending demise here.
The esteemed writer Sir Hugo (Whitehead) has just published his autobiography, in which he calls his old mistress Carlotta (Ivey) “a mediocre actress.” Carlotta has come to exact her revenge, and the scene is set for one of those delicious Coward catfights over caviar and champagne.
Again, it’s all so civilized until, rather prematurely for this playwright, it is not. Carlotta wants not only to publish their love letters in her own upcoming tome, but also those Sir Hugo wrote to Perry, his deceased male lover.
Ivey is every bit as crass as Whitehead is polished, and their seesawing power play under Tillinger’s incisive direction never fails to fascinate. Carlotta, of course, has the upper hand once she deals her final card. Her final bites of chateaubriand, consumed in silence just after Sir Hugo has told her to leave his hotel room and just before she threatens to out him, are breathtaking.
Understandably, she’s more than a little peeved, although none too surprised, at having belatedly discovered the charade of her own affair with the writer. “You waved me like a flag to prove that you were a regular guy,” she volleys.
Sir Hugo counters that he only wanted “to play by the rules.” But he is groveling now; Carlotta has him by the throat.
Sir Hugo’s current wife, Hilde (Mills), returns from a night out with a lesbian friend, and is tellingly bombed out of her mind. As drunk scenes go, it’s one for the books. Mills is both delightful and tragic, and her Hilde quickly guesses the evening’s big secret, since it happens to be one she has suspected for the 20-year duration of her marriage to Sir Hugo.
Sobering up fast, she refers to the chasm she has tried to bridge between her husband’s “personal needs and social demands” and the “reward” that has come with his advancing age, when these polar opposites are no longer in such violent “conflict.” It is to Mills’ credit that her enduring resignation suggests its own tragedy, as well as the summation of that reward.
At play’s end, Carlotta lets Sir Hugo keep his correspondence with Perry. Out of gratitude, he gives Carlotta permission to publish his old love letters to her.
A more insightful production might have indicated that Sir Hugo has simply perpetuated the underlying lie of his life with this final gesture of duplicity.