As a playwright and performer, Craig Archibald (“Kiss Me Guido”) instills a captivating emotional insight into the very private, closeted life of one of the 20th century’s most flamboyant public figures, Noel Coward. He is aided immensely by the intuitive staging of Dan Futterman, an actor making his directorial debut, and the dynamic performance of Paul Papadakis (“Boiler Room”) as a brief but memorable interlude in Coward’s life.
The production of this acclaimed Off Broadway one-acter is set the morning of Sept. 10, 1937, in Coward’s suite at New York City’s Plaza Hotel. He wakens to a plethora of vitriolic newspaper reviews lambasting his recently published autobiography, “Present Indicative,” and is greatly concerned the bad press will adversely affect the upcoming American premiere of his London hit play, “Tonight at 8:30.” In a phone conversation with his sister, Coward puts everything in perspective by calmly proclaiming, “If I wasn’t so excruciatingly sophisticated, I’d let it bother me.”
Indeed, Coward’s supreme intelligence and ready wit were the weapons that enabled him to exude a public facade of complete indifference to the concerns of mere mortal men. But as Coward spends his morning talking on the phone with various family members and friends, Archibald achieves a poignant blend of humor and melancholy, revealing the deep-seated insecurity and fragile ego of this eclectic genius.
Coward’s social concerns are manifested in handsome Darren Zorman (Papadakis), a sexually nonchalant young American sailor who emerges in all his full frontal glory from the bedroom while Coward is on the phone. Coward’s polite but firm rejection of the man with whom he has just shared his bed reveals that, despite his voracious sexual appetite, he truly believes public exposure would completely destroy his life. When the sailor chides him for being too concerned with what the press and the public think, Coward states bitterly, “There is a great distinction between having a sense of humor and being publicly humiliated.”
Futterman allows Coward’s morning of discontent to unfold at an unhurried pace while managing to adroitly underscore the scenic highlights. One memorable moment comes when Coward reluctantly acquiesces to his agent’s demand that he sing over the phone a promotional ditty he had just written. It is a true testament to Coward’s genius that “Sail Away” was to transcend its original purpose and become a still-performed popular standard.
The production values are simple and functional, although Amy Shock’s Plaza suite is a bit on the shabby side for one of the world’s most luxurious hotels. The setting is not helped by Plume Buigues’ inadequate lighting. What does work are the beautiful, period-correct costumes of Eduardo Castro, Hans Struhar and Helen Monaghan.