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Going in Style

In 'Tonight at 8:30,' three one-act plays showcase Noel Coward's skill with comedy, drama and farce.

May 11, 2000|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Style devoid of substance has become such a depressingly familiar problem in the contemporary arts that it's easy to forget that style, taken to its most elegantly crafted expression, can actually become substance. If any playwright proved that point, it was surely Noel Coward, as Pacific Resident Theatre's sparkling revival of "Tonight at 8:30" so engagingly reminds us.

The three one-acts included here showcase Coward's skill with diverse genres: light comedy with music, drama and broad farce.

The opener, "We Were Dancing," weaves light comedy with music in one of Coward's favorite refrains: the ephemeral beauty of romantic flirtation. At a party, a dashing man (Michael Crider) and a married woman (Joanna Daniels) fall madly in love while tripping the light fantastic, only to have their infatuation founder as they attempt to explain matters in an adult fashion to her husband (Andrew Parks). As the husband's tenacious sister, Mary Van Arsdel keeps the trio from floating away on their own airy civility.

The centerpiece of the evening is "The Astonished Heart," a devastating drama about the obsessive flip side of romance in which a psychiatrist (Francois Giroday) emotionally abandons his comfortable marriage to an adoring wife (Alley Mills) for the sake of an amoral adventurer (Molly Schaffer), then undermines his new relationship with increasingly abusive jealousy. Reminiscent of Coward's "The Vortex" in its harrowing exposure of the traps that even the most intelligent, self-aware minds can set for themselves, this spare, keenly focused playlet is a marvel of economy and precision, and its impeccable cast nails every nuance.

The final piece, "Ways and Means," abruptly shifts gears with a frenetic farce about a pair of charmingly elegant freeloaders (Sara Newman and Matt Letscher) at the end of their financial rope plotting their next move after their polite but determined hostess (Amy Warner) evicts them from her villa. A fortuitous run-in with a genteel burglar (Greg Vignolle) affords a surprising opportunity, with hilarious results. Though its placement after the riveting depths of "The Astonished Heart" makes this final segment seem slighter than it otherwise might, it sends the audience home on a breezy, charming note.

Although Coward originally scripted these one-acts as vehicles for Gertrude Lawrence and himself, director Daniel O'Connor wisely cast the various pieces separately from a seamless 18-member ensemble. O'Connor's inventive staging further extends the theater and environs into an elegant champagne party hosted by a Coward-esque William Lithgow and chic Diane Hurley, replete with repartee, song, parlor games and libations--a complete immersion in wit, sophistication and, of course, style.

BE THERE

"Tonight at 8:30," Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends July 2. $20-$22. (310) 822-8392. Running time: 3 hours.

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