A Song at Twilight: Theater Review

Michael Lamont
This deeply personal, very late work by Noel Coward overcomes arid patches and a somewhat-dessicated protagonist to provide a sensitive examination of the state of the closet circa 1966.  

A late work by Noel Coward, staged at Pasadena Playhouse, examines the state of the closet in England circa 1966.

In a sumptuous hotel suite in Switzerland, aging novelist and playwright Sir Hugo Latymer (Bruce Davison) nervously awaits the arrival of a very old flame, actress Carlotta Gray (Sharon Lawrence), with whom he had rancorously split decades before and not met since. Apprehensive and vulnerable in his fading health, he bullies his wife and business manager of 20 years, Hilde (Roxanne Hart), a German refugee, who reassures him as she sets out for dinner with a longtime lesbian friend.

After quickly overwhelming the crotchety Hugo, who had been unkind in his references to her in his autobiography, Carlotta informs him that she is writing her memoirs and would like permission to print his love letters to her as prose more richly heartfelt than his usual cynical distance. When he refuses with peevish condescension, she reveals that she also has possession of another set of love letters, these from another discarded and now deceased, yet far more cherished and forbidden love, the alcoholic Percy.

It was not until the following year, 1967, that England decriminalized private acts of adult homosexuality (Scotland not until 1980, nor the U.S. Supreme Court until 2003, lest we forget). While the patriotic and popular Noel Coward certainly cultivated a contrived and affected style with knowing panache, he was neither frank nor public about his orientation: the risks of opprobrium and draconian jail time enforced discretion upon all British artists after Oscar Wilde.

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A Song at Twilight (1966) was conceived as part of a trio of plays set in a luxury hotel, Suite in Three Keys (the other one-acts performed on a separate evening), providing Coward his swan song as a stage actor supported by Lilli Palmer and Irene Worth. (Coward noted Neil Simon was unlikely to have been unaware of the concept with his own 1968 Plaza Suite.) On Broadway in 1974, the year after Coward’s death, it was reduced to a single act as half the program of the redubbed Suite in Two Keys -- with Hume Cronyn, Anne Baxter and Jessica Tandy -- which subsequently toured to Los Angeles. The full version actually was not premiered locally until as recently as 2010 at the Odyssey.

While the intimidating Sir Hugo tends peevishly to his reputation, he is readily cowed by the devious yet ultimately forthright Carlotta -- who, having played the unwitting beard in her youth, has the better of him now. What he interprets as blackmail, she insists is merely a demand that he acknowledge his hypocrisy in calculating an image not merely in public, but also in his own literary work that fundamentally denied his truest nature, thereby rendering his emotions and observations as fundamentally counterfeit.

Interestingly, Coward craftily avoids touches of self-portraiture. Instead, he pointedly suggests inspiration for Sir Hugo from his older rival, the more truculently closeted W. Somerset Maugham -- the most financially successful of writers when Coward began his own career and one who had served as a professional model for his earlier forays both into drama and comedy. Sir Hugo displays damn little evidence of his once-vaunted charms, and in playing a temperament so different from his own, arguably Coward found greater leeway to express his own feelings about his theme. He refuses to reach deeply, restraining himself from excess sincerity or sentimentality, in his inimitable manner of seeking to imply the profound through suggestions of the superficial.

It’s not one of his great or enduring plays, but it is a distinctive one, and essential to any understanding of the scope of his enduring achievements. A stretch perhaps, but in some ways it could be viewed as a reprise of Private Lives, minus the potency of cheap music. The subject was hardly new to London stages (The Killing of Sister George, for example, had had considerable success two seasons earlier), and as Carlotta trenchantly (yet too glibly) points out, no legitimately cultured person even in that benighted era any longer held such intolerant views. And there have certainly been many more powerful dramatic illustrations since of the same theme of the destructiveness of self-denial: Jon Robin Baitz’s The Paris Letter comes immediately to mind.

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This current production, while a tad bloodless, has much to commend it, beginning with an impressively evocative set (by Tom Buderwitz) and director Art Manke’s understanding that all must be lightly underplayed for the most substantial impact. Above all, three very fine actors give the stakes high-styled plausibility. Davison (Oscar nominated for a gay character in Longtime CompanionShort Eyes, Ulzana’s Raid, Last Summer) inhabits the choleric irritability of pending mortality with few concessions to grace. A man of considerable parts, he must bear the unendurable fact that both women are now far more clever than he.

Lawrence (four Emmy nominations for NYPD Blue and Grey’s Anatomy) nails the brittle brightness and insinuating coquetry of an actress of average attainment galvanized not so much by her vindictiveness as by a passion for redressing a greater wrong than anything perpetrated upon her. The put-upon Hilde gets to portray the most surprising dimensions, and Hart -- a Tony nominee for Passion and a standout in 2010’s Four Places at Rogue Machine -- seizes the stage from the moment she speaks on the telephone in credibly German-accented French, no door mat as she stands up for herself, something her celebrated husband, for all his frayed and faded insights, cannot candidly do for himself. 

Venue: The Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena (runs through April 13)

Cast: Bruce Davison, Sharon Lawrence, Roxanne Hart, Zach Bandler

Director: Art Manke

Playwright: Noel Coward

Set designer: Tom Buderwitz

Lighting designer: Peter Maradudin

Music and sound designer: Steven Cahill

Costume Designer: David Kay Mickelsen

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