You catch your breath when the daughter comes on in "Aren't We All?" at the Wilshire Theatre. My God, it's Colbert.
Claudette Colbert doesn't actually play the daughter in Frederick Lonsdale's 1923 puff-pastry comedy about "the amorous extravagances of the very, very rich." At 80-something, she's got too much of a sense of humor for that.
Besides, the daughter (daughter-in-law, to be accurate) is rather a snippy young thing, whereas Colbert's character is still delighted to be at the party, particularly since Rex Harrison has also been invited.
Such a devil. At one point he heaves a hypocritical sigh and wonders who in the world would possibly be interested in marrying a superannuated old coot like himself. Colbert raises her hand like a child volunteering to clap the erasers. "Oh! I would!"
Not every generation of playgoer will find this irresistible, but I'm old enough to be touched by the grace and the gallantry of two old pros, and I know the real thing in theater when I see it, even when it's a minor thing. "Aren't We All?" is drawing room comedy served by actors with standards.
Not just Colbert and Harrison. Also in the cast is Simon Jones, remembered from "Brideshead Revisited" as Bridey, Sebastian's stick-in-the-mud older brother.
Here Jones plays Harrison's son, again rather a stick-in-the-mud next to his father. Not at all the sort of chap who goes in for kissing other women. But when one's wife has been out of the country for months, and when the other woman (Leslie O'Hara) is more or less pressing the issue. . . .
At that moment Jones' wife (Lise Hilboldt) comes home from Egypt. The rest of the play is devoted to Harrison proving to his daughter-in-law that men and women are equally subject to temptation, especially when on leave from their spouses. Take a woman traveling in, oh, Egypt. She might well meet an attractive young man from, say, Australia.
Does Harrison know something? He does. Meanwhile, Miss Colbert is setting out her lines for Harrison, being careful to do so in plain sight, which rather charms him. When their betrothal is announced in the London Times, it is news to him. But, on the whole, it is not unwelcome news. She's a damned intelligent woman.
Damned attractive, too. After that breathtaking first entrance--which should assure director Clifford Williams future assignments along this line--we see that Miss Colbert is not, after all, 20 years old. She would still turn heads on a cruise ship. If this is illusion, three cheers for illusion.
Colbert is actively glad to see us. Harrison is mildly pleased--and that's funny, too. As usual, he lets a shrug or a wince secure some of his best laughs, letting us into the frisky imagination of Lord Grenham without saying a word. I don't know if we'll remember Harrison as one of the greatest actors of the century, but in this kind of thing he has always been unsurpassed, and the Wilshire sees him in top form.
It would be bliss to see the production at a small West End house like the Comedy. The Wilshire is half a size too big for it, and the players have to be miked. But, wisely, no one is pressing. If it takes the audience a while to come to the play (the drawing-room genre is beginning to seem as exotic as Restoration comedy) they'll wait.
Set designer Finlay James gives us two drawing rooms, in point of fact. Lord Grenham's place in the country is particularly comforting. No slouching beast will ever appear at those French windows demanding to be fed. This is the realm of safe problems, dispersed by a little ingenuity and tolerance.
Within this comfort zone, Williams' supporting players give some shrewd performances. Nobody goes for a camp cartoon, not even George Ede as the bumbling rector whose presence would surely be missed in a comedy of this sort. Even better is Joyce Worsley as his wife, the power behind the pulpit, but not a battle-ax by choice.
Hilboldt as the wife and O'Hara as the other women (for about three minutes) aren't afraid to be a touch shrill, a touch forlorn--it heightens the drama. And Ned Schmidtke gives the wife's young Australian his own story, although there isn't enough time in the play to hear it.
Another asset: the beautiful 1920s frocks by Judith Bland, who hasn't heard that this was an ugly period for women's fashions. "Aren't We All?" is trivia, exactly pursued.
'AREN'T WE ALL?' A revival of Frederick Lonsdale's comedy, at the Wilshire Theatre. Director Clifford Williams. Sets Finlay James. Costumes Judith Bland, Tracy Mills. Lighting Natasha Katz. Sound Jan Nebozenko. Casting Hughes/Moss. General management Kingwill and Goossen. Production stage manager Warren Crane. Producers Douglas Urbanski, Karl Allison, Bryan Bantry, James M. Nederlander, Duncan C. Weldon, Paul Gregg, Lionel Becker, Jerome Minskoff. Associate producers Robert Michael Geisler, John Roberdeau. With Claudette Colbert, Rex Harrison, Richard Neilson, Simon Jones, Steven Sutherland, John Patrick Hurley, Leslie O'Hara, Lise Hilboldt, Leo Leyden, Joyce Worsley, George Ede, Ned Schmidtke.
Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays and Sundays. Tickets $24-$35. 8440 Wilshire Blvd. (213) 216-6666. 8440 Wilshire Blvd.