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Neil Simon’s classic comedy Plaza Suite, a trilogy of shorts set in the same room at different times in New York’s Plaza Hotel, opened at Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre on Valentine’s Day 1968. Just two years earlier was the London premiere of Noel Coward’s A Song at Twilight, part of his trilogy of plays, A Suite in Three Keys, each of which takes place in the same posh hotel room in Switzerland.
“Such a good idea having different plays all played in a hotel suite!” Coward remarked about Plaza Suite. “I wonder where Neil Simon got it from?”
One of Coward’s final and most daring plays, A Song at Twilight, in which he obliquely addresses his homosexuality, premiered in England at a time when it was still a criminal offense to engage in same-sex relationships. Running through April 13 at the Pasadena Playhouse, the play’s cast of three includes Bruce Davison (Longtime Companion), Sharon Lawrence (NYPD Blue) and Roxanne Hart (Chicago Hope), and is directed by Art Manke, who did such a fine job with the Playhouse’s production of Coward’s Fallen Angels last season that they brought him back for more.
“It’s a final examination of his life and all that that entails in 1965, having lived a not necessarily closeted life but one of great discretion,” Davison, a longtime advocate on gay issues, tells THR. “It’s Noel Coward’s King Lear. It’s his most complex piece by far.”
If Simon lifted from Coward, Coward was inspired by Somerset Maugham via Max Beerbohm when he wrote this two-act two-hander about literary lion Sir Hugo Latymer’s reunion with an old flame, Carlotta, who has come to seek permission to print some of his old letters in a memoir she is writing. He refuses, so she blackmails him with additional letters of his addressed to one Perry Sheldon, whom he describes as “the only true love of my life.”
In a biography of Beerbohm, Coward came across an account of a taxing visit by the writer’s ex-lover, Constance Collier, that left the old man exhausted. The episode provided the kernel of Coward’s play, with his main character patterned after author Somerset Maugham, a dark and brooding closeted homosexual, rather than himself (he was relatively open, though discreet).
“In that period of time the law was shifting, and in the next year it was taken off the books as a criminal offense,” says Davison about Britain’s sodomy laws. “The law may have disappeared, but a stigma would still be attached to the love that dare not speak its name. I think that’s one of the reasons that I was so interested in doing this play. It was mirror of a time in the ’60s that was the beginning of a battle that continues now and will continue probably for generations to come.”
Davison became aligned with gay causes around the time he starred in the 1989 AIDS drama, Longtime Companion. Taking the role of a man whose lover is dying of AIDS was risking professional suicide back then, but instead his performance landed him an Oscar nomination and became a career milestone. He went on to appear in other gay-themed titles such as the 1996 comedy It’s My Party as well as Showtime’s The L Word.
“It wasn’t something I thought about at the time,” Davison reflects. “During the course of the period in which I was doing The Normal Heart with Richard Dreyfuss in 1987, my personal manager, my agent and my commercial agent all died within six months. So it was close to me. Also, I think it’s a lot easier for a heterosexual man to play a homosexual man in a film than it is for a homosexual man to play that part, especially in the stigma of Hollywood. Looking back to generations before mine, you could see the devastation that it caused in the lives of people like Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, people that had to live under that shadow of illusion.”
Davison’s career has always remained steady right up to his recent work in the TV series Last Resort, but he’s most familiar to today’s audiences as Senator Kelly in the first two X-Men movies.
“I have a feeling I’m getting a bit long in the tooth for the X-Men,” he laughed when asked he’ll be appearing in the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past. “I think I lost the battle on the first one when I told Brian Singer he should have a shot of me going down a drain so I could pop out a toilet down the road in a sequel. And he said no, you have to die, or else the machine doesn’t work. To which I said, for God’s sake, this is a comic book. He was really more involved in trying to create reality out of that comic book.”
Coward’s career likewise remained steady, despite his sexual orientation. His rumored affair with Prince George, Duke of Kent, went uncommented on despite the fact that they were sometimes seen in public dressed as women and were reportedly picked up for prostitution. The champagne sparkle of Coward’s dialogue and the wit and charm of comedies like Hay Fever, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit upstaged more serious works like This Happy Breed and Peace in Our Time as well as his screenplay for A Brief Encounter.
“He was always considered just a talent to amuse,” says Davison. “This play gets into things a bit deeper than just his talent to amuse. I think he’d be glad to see the weight that’s been given to this play now.”
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