Mixed results on Coward revivals

THEATER

Hopkins players have more fun than those at Olney

April 22, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Fans of Noel Coward can get a double shot of the wit of the late play- wright/songwriter in two shows running simultaneously at area theaters. Coward's comedy, Fallen Angels, is receiving a ripping revival at Theatre Hopkins, and Roderick Cook's revue, Oh, Coward!, is attempting to recapture Coward's debonair flair at Olney Theatre Center.

The more successful of the productions - in terms of both material and performance - is director Suzanne Pratt's staging of Fallen Angels. Although this account of two proper young British wives contemplating adultery is hardly as daring today as it was when it opened in 1925, actresses Laurel Burggraf and Molly Moores infuse their characters with an amusing dose of naughtiness.

Best friends who are now contentedly married to decent, if dull, husbands, both women had affairs with the same irresistible Frenchman (suave Jonas Grey) before their marriages. Now Maurice, the object of their past affection, has come to London, on a weekend when the women's husbands are conveniently away.

Will they succumb? Merely contemplating the possibility is enough to turn Burggraf and Moores into giddy schoolgirls. Add an alcohol-infused dinner, and the pair become as buoyant as the bubbles in their freely flowing champagne.

The standout performance, however, belongs to Lynda McClary as a dauntingly competent know-it-all maid, whose unshakable humorlessness makes her all the funnier.

Though Burggraf occasionally tries a bit too hard, the only unsatisfactory performance is that of Stephen Gaede, who seems ill-at-ease in the role of a veddy-veddy British, stiff-upper-lip husband. Other than that, Fallen Angels is a devilish delight.

Olney's Oh, Coward! should be sheer froth, but director Dallett Norris' production fails to live up to its vintage. The problem is due in part to the relatively uninspired structure of the show and in part to a sense of coolness among the three cast members - Valerie Leonard, Thomas Adrian Simpson and John Leslie Wolfe - who appear to have mistaken aloofness for urbanity.

Although Coward tackled some serious themes in his plays (from drug addiction to death), this revue appears primarily aimed at celebrating the quick-witted writer's glossy surface.

Indeed, one section - when the performers don yachting caps and sing such numbers as "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" and "The Passenger's Always Right" - presumably takes place aboard ship, and it makes you realize that the entire revue would make fine cruise ship entertainment (which isn't exactly high praise).

Still, it's pleasantly diverting to rediscover some of Coward's cleverest songs, such as "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," "(Don't put your daughter on the stage) Mrs. Worthington," and a personal favorite, "Uncle Harry" (who's "certainly not a missionary now").

A number of less familiar selections are also enjoyable, particularly a song about the ramshackle "Stately Homes of England." And some selections are surprisingly up-to-date, such as the poem, "An Elderly Actress," which includes the lines, "She got in a rage/About age ... She got in a state/About weight."

Sophisticated Leonard and smooth-crooning Simpson perform Coward's compositions with aplomb. However, Wolfe, who also provides snippets of narration, lacks the crisp delivery that is a prerequisite for Coward.

"I've been to a marvelous party," Wolfe says, reciting a poem whose stanzas conclude: "I couldn't have liked it more." Despite its chic trappings - including a glitzy Art Deco set designed by James Fouchard and a snappy orchestral trio led by Christopher Youstra - Oh, Coward! is only a middling party. I wish I had liked it more.

Show times for Fallen Angels at Theatre Hopkins (in the Merrick Barn on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University) are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:15 p.m. Sundays, through May 9. Tickets are $15. Call 410-516-7159.

Show times for Oh, Coward! at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and most Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through May 16. Tickets are $15-$36. Call 301-924-3400.

Student work

Center Stage's 18th annual Young Playwrights Festival will take place at 7 p.m. Monday when scripts by four student playwrights will receive staged readings by professional actors. This year the theater received 310 entries from elementary, middle and high school students across the state.

The plays being read include: The Four Princess Disasters by Charlotte Hagerman, a sixth-grader at Harford Day School in Harford County; A Cat's Life by Sophie Keane, a fourth-grader at Clarksville Elementary in Howard Country; Tunnels by April M. Morton, a senior at Garrison Forest School in Baltimore County; and Vulture (or: The Cost of Candlelight), by Adam Singerman, a junior at Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County.

Monday's festivities will also honor three students whose plays will receive future staged readings in their home counties, as well as three honorable mention recipients. The hosts of this year's ceremony are WJZ anchor Denise Koch, who performed and served as literary manager at Center Stage early in her career, and Julie Madden, director of arts and community outreach for the state's Department of Business and Economic Development.

Admission to the festival is free, but reservations are required. Call 410-685-3200, ext. 362.

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