They're playing his 'Song' unevenly at the Vagabonds

February 26, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Hugo: "You always talked too much, Carlotta." Carlotta: "Ah, yes. It's a compulsive disease. Useful at dinner parties, but fatal in the home."

This vintage Noel Coward exchange comes from his last major play, "A Song at Twilight." Coward's scripts overflow with witty, bubbling banter, and keeping it fizzing requires a style that is all too evanescent these days when "grunge" is the watchword of fashion.

The Vagabonds' current production, directed by Patrick Martyn, has far more fizz than grunge, though Coward's verbiage occasionally trips up -- instead of falling trippingly off the tongues of -- some of the cast.

The actress who handles the text most felicitously is Linda Chambers, who brings just the right amount of affectation to the role of Carlotta Gray, a brash actress past her prime. As her former lover, an aging, debonair, cynical author named Sir Hugo Latymer, who is accustomed to being treated with deference, Everett C. Rose lacks some of the self-assurance and hauteur necessary to earn that deference. And as his wife/secretary/nurse, Anne B. Mulligan warms to the role as her character becomes more inebriated (by the end, she's deservedly the noblest character on stage).

The unevenness of the performances carries over to the physical production, in which Allan Nichols' set design is appropriately chic, but Carlotta's dinner dress is as tacky as a prom gown.

However, beyond the demands of style and language, "A Song at Twilight," presents another, more serious, difficulty. The plot concerns Carlotta's desire to release certain incriminating letters Sir Hugo's. The format is a bit like a mystery -- actually more of a guessing game -- in which the content of the letters takes a while to surface. Eventually, it is revealed that they concern an affair Sir Hugo once had with a male secretary.

Today, when coming out of the closet is often considered a therapeutic if not political act, this revelation may seem less than startling. In fact, it's hardly a surprise that the play has often been considered autobiographical -- an interpretation disputed by Coward biographer Cole Lesley, who claims Sir Hugo was a combination of Sir Max Beerbohm and W. Somerset Maugham.

But aside from the solution to the mystery, the play raises another issue that has remained timely. Carlotta isn't planning to use the letters for blackmail. Instead, she intends to turn them over to a professor writing an analytical survey of Sir Hugo's life and work. That brings up the matter of how much we need to know about an artist's personal life to appreciate and understand his art. "A Song at Twilight" isn't dated if it makes you think about how thin the line has become separating kiss-and-tell bios from valid scholarship.

So, even though the Vagabonds' "Song" may not always be on key, it's worth listening to. The wordplay on "song" and "key", incidentally, is borrowed from "Noel Coward in Two Keys," the title given to this script and Coward's "Come into the Garden, Maude" when they were revived in a sparkling double bill starring Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy and Anne Baxter, which played the Mechanic Theatre in 1975.

And, that sparkling quality is reason enough to return to the matter of style -- an increasingly endangered species and an essential Coward component. Having a passion for Coward is a little like having a passion for, say, baked Alaska, a dessert that rarely shows up on menus anymore. The Cronyn-Tandy production and the one at the Vagabonds are very different baked Alaskas, but if you've got a hankering for the stuff, it still tastes good.

"A Song at Twilight"

Where: Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway.

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Through March 21.

Tickets: $8 and $9.

Call: (410) 563-9135.

**

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