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Noel Coward remains secure as one of 20th century Britain’s most accomplished theatrical talents, and many of his comedies not only retain their sparkle (Private Lives, Hay Fever, Present Laughter) but also have acquired a perception of greater depth as audiences realize more acutely the subtexts of encoded gay undertones within the works. Far better than his predecessor W. Somerset Maugham (The Letter, Rain), to whom his early “shocking” efforts were often compared, many of Coward’s plays continue to age gracefully into legitimate classics.
Fallen Angels is not one of those instances. One can still well appreciate how scandalous its casual tone toward sexual hijinks would have been when it appeared but at this remove its girls-behaving-badly premise seems beyond quaint compared to contemporary forays like Bridesmaids, of which it is genetically identifiable as a direct ancestor. Indeed, the antics of BFFs Julia Sterroll (Pamela J. Gray) and Jane Banbury (Katie MacNichol) – who, upon hearing of the imminent arrival in London of the romantic Frenchman they both had passionate affairs with in Italy before their respective marriages to dull, obtuse Englishmen – obviously provided the template for the weekly regimen of zaniness from Lucy and Ethel.
The centerpiece of the show is an audaciously overextended drunk scene in which the two women get progressively more plastered. The novelty has certainly dimmed through constant repetition over the years, but Coward builds the long line of his epic bender with exquisite attention to behavioral detail and a keen eye for both comedic construction and psychological progression. It probably cannot escape the déjà vu of cliché, yet the physical inventiveness of the two actresses keep the plates spinning like seasoned jugglers, MacNichol’s angular body movements being particularly hilarious.
The Pasadena Playhouse has had a long history with Coward, dating back almost precisely to the year this play was written. While there is nothing innovative in this choice of repertoire (Design for Living might have had more punch), nor in the unambitious production, it is welcome to experience this relatively early text, quite aged yet not doddering, still toned and ready to frolic.
Venue: The Pasadena Playhouse (through Feb. 24)
Cast: Pamela J. Gray, Katie MacNichol, Mary-Pat Green, Mike Ryan, Loren Lester, Elijah Alexander
Director: Art Manke
Writer: Noel Coward
Scenic Design: Tom Buderwitz
Lighting Design: Peter Maradudin
Composer & Sound Design: Steven Cahill
Costume Design: David K. Mickelsen
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