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Fallen Angels at Irish Classical Theatre
by Anthony Chase
In the first scene of his most famous play, Private Lives, Noël Coward’s heroine, Amanda Prynne, opines with wistful resignation that, “very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives.”
By 1929, when Private Lives made its debut, this adage was already a central theme of Coward’s work. Indeed, the comic thrust of all Coward’s great comedies—from Private Lives to Present Laughter—involves socially unacceptable desires that refuse to be controlled.
In Fallen Angels, now being performed by the Irish Classical Theatre Company at the Andrews Theatre, Julia and Jane yearn for the sexual excitement they enjoyed before they married their husbands.
Under the fast-paced direction of Fortunato Pezzimenti, the youthful cast at the Andrews Theatre happily populates the world of Noël Coward’s play. Diane Curley is especially winning as self-involved Julia, forging a woman whose underlying innocence punctures her premature world-weariness. She is paired with Bonnie Jean Taylor, who gives a spirited and engaging performance as willful and petulant Jane.
For their part, the husbands on the periphery of this catfight of a play, Brian Mysliwy as Fred and Matt Witten as Willy, are adorably and endearingly pompous and extraneous to their wives’ schemes.
While Fallen Angels is often cast with middle-aged actors, this production’s emphasis on youth seems entirely right. These couples are inexperienced and childless, and have been married just five years.
In the opening scene of this play, Fred and Julia discuss the state of their marriage, now that they are no longer newlyweds. Julia gives the first hint of the commotion ahead when she observes that she and Fred are happily married, but no longer in love. He objects to this description, agreeing only that, “the first violent passion is naturally over,” inspiring Julia to interject, “Thank God! It’s so uncomfortable.”
Curley and Witten play the scene with delightfully offhanded sophistication that serves to expose how clueless Julia and Willy are to the turns a marriage can take.
When Fred asks how his wife will occupy her time while he’s away on a golf holiday, she describes a far from thrilling arrangement of cleaning, lunch and a matinee. He cheerfully responds, “There now, didn’t I tell you your day would pan out normally?
Ah, but no. In a Noël Coward play, very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives.
This very respectable and monotonous marital world is turned upside down when Julia and Jane learn that Maurice—the dashing Frenchman with whom each had a fling before she was married, here played by dashing Adriano Gatto—has returned to London. The women are convinced that they will not be able to resist his sexual magnetism.
“When he arrives,” warns Jane, “we shall both go down like ninepins.”
In 1925, many critics found this to be a shocking plot. In his scathing review of Design for Living, eight years later, America’s foremost drama critic, George Jean Nathan, dismissed Coward’s entire career with disgust by harkening back to the decadent odiousness of Fallen Angels.
“As to Design for Living…” wrote Nathan, “…I can see in it little more than a pansy paraphrase of Candida, theatrically sensationalized with ‘daring,’ gay allusions to hermaphrodites, ‘gipsy queens,’ men dressed as women, etc., and with various due references to ‘predatory feminine carcasses’ and to women as bitches. The big scene is simply a rehash of the one played by the two drunken women in the same author’s Fallen Angels and here given, relevantly, into the hands of two men.”
Nathan went on to suggest that 20 years into the future, the name Noël Coward would be entirely forgotten. Instead, Coward remains one of the world’s most popularly produced playwrights, and Mr. Nathan is almost entirely forgotten.
1925 was an especially productive year for Coward. He had four plays running in the West End simultaneously, including Fallen Angels and Hay Fever, all the while he was writing silent screenplays for the movies. (The following year, he would actually collapse on stage from exhaustion). It is possible that in his frenzy to satisfy the seemingly insatiable demand for his work, Fallen Angels, which was little more than an extended sketch in its premiere, was given short shrift. Coward, however, was anything but lazy.
It is often said that Fallen Angels is a tier below the great works of the Coward repertoire. This may be true in terms of productions, but it is not true in terms of quality. The misconception probably endures because so many analyses of the play are based on Coward’s original 1925 script. He revised the play substantially in the years following, and the version being done by the Irish Classical Theatre Company dates from 1958.
Between 1925 and 1958, Coward sharpened the comedy at every turn. By its final incarnation, Fallen Angels is imbued with the urbane wit and ribald sophistication that is Coward’s trademark. His revision to the exchange between Julia and Fred about events in the news, with its mischievous reference to homosexuality, is a case in point:
Julia – A girl scout was molested in Grosvenor Square last night.
Fred – Another!
Julia – Don’t be silly, Fred, last time was a boy scout.
Originally the joke was rendered as:
Julia – There was an old lady found dead on Clapham Common last night.
Fred – Another!
Julia – Don’t be silly, Fred, the last one was Wandsworth Common.
There are dozens of examples. The greatest change in the script, however, is the total overhaul of the character of Saunders, the maid.
In the original 1925 script, Saunders serves an entirely forgettable functionary role, bringing props on and off, answering the door.
By 1958, both Saunders and the play are transformed. Coward often lavishes remarkable flights of invention on his working characters, as he does with the maid in Present Laughter, or Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit. Saunders is one of his best. All of her major speeches were added subsequent to the play’s 1925 debut.
By 1958, Saunders is a sort of Renaissance woman—knowledgeable of golf, home remedies, bartending, and folklore; proficient on the piano; fluent in French; adept at first aid. Her skill and high level of accomplishment begins to wear on her shallow employer’s nerves and to highlight the absurdity of the wealthy woman’s foolish predicament.
To cast Annette Daniels Taylor, an African American actress with a regal stage presence, is a stroke of genius. Taylor commands the stage with an easy confidence, giving a compellingly solid performance—singing, dancing, speaking French—and pulling the action together to delicious effect. She is a high spot of the production.
Dixon Reynolds’ attractive costumes evoke the period and the style while looking like actual wardrobe, rather than like “costumes.”
I do wish, at times, that this notably American cast would give as much weight to the rhythms of a Coward script as they do to his character’s motivations. (The ability to devour especially edible vowels and consonants is the basis of Maggie Smith’s entire career!) Especially in the famous drunk scene between Jane and Julia, as phrases become increasingly alliterative, this element of the script has been slighted. This may be a question of technique or a symptom of a short rehearsal period. Happily, the spirit of the piece is right on the money. Director Pezzimenti has showcased a first rate cast with a marvelously entertaining and smart production.
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