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THEATER

Mad About the Man?

With the Noel Coward centennial upon us, the question of whether his works can still speak to today's audiences moves center stage.

December 12, 1999|PATRICK PACHECO | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar

Coward's prodigious talent has been somewhat ubiquitous, however, this year--the Center Theatre Group's recent one-night-only "A Marvelous Party" celebrated him at the Mark Taper Forum, while twin film retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Academy of Music are showing Coward as producer and director ("In Which We Serve"), as screenwriter ("Brief Encounter," "This Happy Family"), as actor ("The Scoundrel," "Our Man in Havana," "Boom") and as a triple threat in an early live television re-creation of his hit "Blithe Spirit." His movie work will be enhanced with the release early next year of "Relative Values," a film adaptation of Coward's 1951 play about a countess trying to thwart her son's marriage to a Hollywood starlet. Julie Andrews stars.

Many Coward supporters, like Donald Smith, who produced the Carnegie Hall gala, are hoping that the centennial focus will spark a Coward revival in the U.S. "That's what these kinds of celebrations are about, to help redress the neglect," Smith said. "I think some people have the idea that his work was just frivolous period pieces that won't last. But they are extraordinarily profound universal plays. Even something as light and airy as 'Private Lives' is about the loving and the pain of loving."

The scorecard on recent Coward theatrical ventures has been mixed. Last summer saw a short-lived off-Broadway revue of Coward tunes, "Noel and Gertie," starring Harry Groener and Twiggy, based on the relationship between the playwright and his frequent co-star Lawrence. Last month, a two-week concert revival of "Sail Away" sold out the 330-seat Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, with Stritch re-creating her starring turn.

Still to come are two lesser-known works by Coward: an off-Broadway revival of two one-acts from his later years, "Shadows of the Evening" and "A Song at Twilight," under the collective title of "Noel Coward's Suite in Two Keys," starring Hayley Mills in her New York debut and Keir Dullea. But the centerpiece of the centennial, for good or ill, is the New York premiere Thursday of "Waiting in the Wings," an elegiac 1960 comedy-drama about life in an English retirement home, starring Lauren Bacall. In it, a long-simmering feud is reignited between a new arrival, a stage diva (Bacall), and her onetime rival (Rosemary Harris).

"Waiting in the Wings" opens on Coward's actual centennial birthday with a $2.5-million advance, according to producer Alexander Cohen, and is largely fueled by the presence of Bacall, who is returning to the stage after an absence of more than two decades. While the drama had a short London run in 1960, it has never been done in the U.S., and many who have read it consider it an inferior work. In Boston, where the production tried out last month, the critics said as much in panning the show. Stritch was even more succinct. "Why they would do one of Coward's worst plays is beyond me," she said, worried that it might hurt her friend's reputation more than help.

But Cohen insists that his big gamble, with its cast of 18, re-creates one of Coward's finest virtues: his theatricality. "This is filled with his passion and love of things theatrical," he said, "and I think we, as a society and a country, have finally caught up with what this play is saying, tenderly and movingly, about the aged. We haven't clearly focused on the problem of growing to a point when you've finally mastered your craft and then you're thrown out on your ass."

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In an interview before the production began its out-of-town tryout in Boston, Bacall herself conceded that "Waiting in the Wings" may not exactly be first-rate Coward, but, she said, "One of Noel's lesser works is better than most people's best plays." She made clear that her return to the stage is fully intended as a tribute to her close friend. "I was crazy about him, as everyone who knew him was, and he was such a man of quality, a quality that is getting rarer and rarer to find, unfortunately," she said. "Yet I don't think this is an old-fashioned play at all; I feel very strongly about that."

In 1956, Bacall starred with Coward and Claudette Colbert in a live television production of the playwright's smash London and West End 1941 hit "Blithe Spirit." She recalled the event as "one of the most gratifying and frightening" experiences of her career, not only because it aired live, but also because Coward himself performed in it, as well as directing. "He knew exactly what he wanted," recalled Bacall. "That's why he insisted that actors show up for the first rehearsal with their lines totally memorized. The timing, the inflection, gestures, everything was very, very precise with him. That's what made his plays work, that's what makes playing Coward such a tremendous challenge for actors. It's very difficult, especially [for] American actors."

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