Well into the third act of the disconcerting non-event that is “Semi-Monde,” the 1926 Noel Coward play only now receiving its London premiere, an aspish senior novelist named Jerome Kennedy (John Carlisle) punctures — however briefly — the low-camp banter that up until then has been driving the play. “Nothing lasts — ever,” he says in a declaration so direct that it has the force of revelation. Continuing on, he offers a critique of “the usual practice of codes and pretenses” animating a culture built, he says, on lies. The remarks carry a real, if short-lived, sting, and then it’s back to the badinage, which seems to be how these black-clad cocktail-hour revelers at the Ritz in Paris conduct themselves: The time is Europe between the wars, and they are drinking while civilization dies.
Idleness brought up short can be a richly dramatic theme, having served such disparate cultural templates as Chekhov and “Cabaret.” So it comes as a bit of a shock that this slice of Coward esoterica should be so dull, especially given its provenance as a piece at odds with the censors of the very same country whose suffocating propriety Coward aimed to crack. Premiered posthumously at Glasgow’s Citizens Theater in 1977, the play has only now traveled south of the border, directed and designed — as it was in Scotland — by Philip Prowse, whose Coward credentials are extensive, to say the least.
Why, then, the anticlimax attending a rarity that joins Shaftesbury Avenue’s adjacent (and far livelier) “Fallen Angels” in a welcome Coward repertory of sorts? The problem lies in a play that emerges as piecemeal in performance and turns out to be far less than the sum of its parts, however bracing it surely is — in numerical terms — to find a cast of 28 sharing a West End stage.
Is it any surprise, then, that Carlisle’s clear-eyed cynicism (the actor was a similarly biting presence in the stunning Janet McTeer “A Doll’s House”) awakens an audience that may have tired of an ebb and flow that Vicki Baum’s contemporaneous “Grand Hotel,” among other comparably prismatic narratives, has handled with far greater vibrancy? Playing a man of letters down on society and drawn to Switzerland by what he describes as “the call of the snow,” Carlisle is the closest thing a diffuse play has to an authorial surrogate: When he speaks, you listen, and “Semi-Monde” comes to serious life.
A more apt title for the show might have been “Demi-Monde,” insofar as Coward’s concerns even more than usual embrace those on the fringes of respectability. Gay double entendres abound (Carlisle gets one of the best), and there’s a snappish trio of lesbians, led in dramatic terms by Frances Tomelty’s Inez, partner to the fierce-eyed Cynthia (Freya Dominic). The women wear cloches or tuxedos or beads, plot travel and map out affairs, and signal emotions that often sound one step away from a Stepford wife. “I love you so very deeply,” says the honeymooning Tanis Marshall (Sophie Ward), aka Jerome’s lover, who speaks with considerably less passion than one might reserve for a TV dinner.
Not that Tanis’ husband, Owen (Simon Dutton, his vocal authority and features suggesting a slimmer Simon Callow), is capable of any greater excitation. A confession of love from Norma (Beth Cordingly), Jerome’s daughter, prompts Owen’s clipped response: “My dear, how ridiculous of you.” Love, in this context, doesn’t relate to style; the offhand, languid response does.
Coward’s expected drollery — “Good-looking people are always difficult to manage” — surfaces between shards of drama that might make for better eavesdropping if anything substantial seemed truly at stake. (Asked whether one man takes another’s remark as a compliment, he replies, inimitably, “No, merely as a contribution to the conversation.”) There are hints, of course, of a society blind to its own extinction, with the eleventh-hour arrival of the Nazis here a hoary theatrical trick, at least in contemporary terms.
The “Semi” of Coward’s title pays implicit reference to half a world, tilting an eye toward the forbidding black abyss that engulfs Prowse’s gilded dome of a set, as lit by Gerry Jenkinson. Small wonder at least two of the characters lapse into baby talk, in one case sparing onlookers an otherwise preposterous American accent. “Semi-Monde” is a play about overage children who are either too silly or scared to face the world like adults.
The play’s thematic thrust is admirable; its thinness of character is not. (On those terms, this play makes the deliciously featherweight “Fallen Angels,” written the previous year, seem downright robust.) Perhaps a more truly stylish production might knit together an underwritten three-act kaleidoscope into a sizzling whole; as it is, it’s skimpily costumed (the clothes look made on the cheap) and, for the most part, broadly performed.
One’s heart goes out to such pros as Nichola McAuliffe, playing the resident chanteuse who opens the third act with “Mad About the Boy” even though a vampy seductress this game performer most certainly is not. Or to a rising young actor like Benedick Bates (Alan’s son), who has nothing to do beyond look grim-faced. Here again, it falls to Carlisle to voice the truth amid all the posturing. “I’m only waiting for something definite to happen,” he announces late on, and damned if you’re not right there waiting with him.