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Coward in California: Tonight at 8:30, Part Three by Kathy Williams

U.S. Première of The Better Half  by the Antaeus Theatre Company, North Hollywood
plus an interview with Jeanie Hackett, Co-Artistic Director of Antaeus

On March 1st and 2nd, a star-studded audience attended the U.S. première of Noël Coward’s The Better Half, the centerpiece of a glittering staged reading of Tonight at 8:30, Part Three by the Antaeus Theatre Company. Directed by Jonathan Lynn, the performance by the Antaeus Ensemble blossomed into an evening replete with romance, nuance, and wit.

Although the Deaf West is a small theatre, it has a good-sized library in which theatergoers were greeted with cocktails and a lavish spread of canapés, welcoming them to the sold-out Gala performances.  Following the refreshments, a pre-show cabaret by the Antaeus Ensemble, guided by musical director Matthew Goldsby, hit the spot with Coward favorites ranging from ‘Any Little Fish’ to show-stoppers ‘Nina from Argentina’ and ‘Why Do the Wrong People Travel?’, and culminating in actor Harry Groener’s ‘Mrs Worthington’.  (Three-time Tony nominee Groener returns to Broadway this summer to reprise his role as King Arthur in Spamalot.)

Garbed by Jeffrey Schoenberg as if en route to the Academy Awards ceremony — the gentlemen in evening attire, the ladies in gorgeous gowns — the Ensemble lent a note of elegance. Harvey Schwartz of 20th Century Props dressed the stage with a bucolic backdrop, depicting a moonlit garden complete with Greco-Roman ruin, and gilded music stands to hold the actors’ books.

For this Gala, Antaeus presented three plays: Ways and Means and Shadow Play  (completing the cycle of ten one-acts) and, with kind permission from Alan Brodie, The Better Half.  Each play takes place in a bedroom, the setting in which couples frequently work out their differences.  In these plays, the marital bed is often so prominent in fully staged productions that it almost becomes a character. Each couple grapples with an aspect of marriage: financial, physical, emotional. Three plays; three problems; three leading ladies dressed in red.

Ways and Means
Satirizing a familiar triangle (a husband, a wife, and their lack of money), Ways and Means opens with the Cartwrights—Stella (Gigi Bermingham) and Toby (JD Cullum)—fighting and fretting about their inability to cover their enormous gambling debts or even to tip the servants in the grand house they’re visiting.  They quarrel about who is responsible for coming up with the cash they need.

Stella: You seem to forget that on a certain bleak day in 1928 I gave myself into your keeping.
Toby: Marriage is a sacrament, a mystic rite, and you persist in regarding it as a sort of plumber’s estimate.
Although Stella and Toby bicker, they ultimately unite in their schemes to exit in a financially graceful manner from Olive Lloyd-Ransome’s (Nike Doukas) condescending hospitality.  A tip of the old Restoration-Comedy-naming-conventions hat to Coward for Olive’s apt surname: socially speaking, until they come up with the lolly, Lloyds is holding Stella and Toby for Ransom.

Stunning in a scarlet embroidered shawl (draped over her black evening gown, hinting at a negligee), Gigi’s clever Stella steers the action, all the while remaining beautiful and disarming. As the genial Toby, JD combines humor and charm, fitting perfectly Toby’s self-description, “…we were brought up merely to be amiable and pleasant and socially attractive and have no ambition and no talent — except for playing games.”

Ensemble members Bill Brochtrup, Josh Clark, Dawn Didawick, Harry Groener, and Devan Sorvari round out the cast, providing extra punch in the supporting roles; in particular, Josh as Stevens, the chauffeur/valet-turned-honorable burglar (the man who saves the day), is a delight, well deserving Stella’s punch line: “If I’d been May Bainbridge, I’d have married him!”

The Better Half 
[Home Chat recently featured articles about this Coward play, “lost” for 85 years.  John Knowles and Barry Day wrote in October 2007 about its history and about other unproduced or incomplete plays. In addition to filling us in on the plot and characters, actors and audience reactions, Barbara Longford’s thorough review in December 2007 of last fall’s production at the Union Theatre, Southwark expands on historical details and informs us about the discovery and revival of The Better Half.]

A glance at the love triangle in The Better Half reveals the excessively noble, smug, and stodgy husband; the flawed, conflicted  “other woman”; and the frustrated, sensual wife, who gives up on getting a rise out of her husband.

In a work by Coward, if your name is Alice, you are itching to be “at it again!”  Alice Ruthven has personality enough for two: she could easily become both of the wives in Blithe Spirit, Ruth and Elvira—bitchy and beguiling; demanding, deadly, and delectable. Francia DiMase sparkles as Alice, her ruby-red evening gown and diamond bracelets underscoring her dazzling delivery. She is a post-war Jazz Baby, style and sizzle steaming up the stage.

A dead ringer for the Arrow Collar Man, from his slicked-down hair to his no-doubt starched undergarments and socks, classically handsome David Ruthven (Jeffrey Nordling) represses all genuine emotion, a husband whose shirt is always stuffed, never mussed.  He’s so good looking you know what attracted Alice, and so infuriatingly bland and untouchable that you understand her tantrums. One can imagine that Jeffrey played the entire role in noble profile (his good side, naturally… not that he has a bad side!) except for the brief moment when he loses control and twists Alice’s wrist. In an instant, he recovers and is a prig again.  An emotionally constipated holdover from the Edwardian age, David’s manners and morals dictate purity and being a decent chap, never a cad, in speech or behavior. To quote the Poet Wodehouse, “does one bandy a woman's name?" — much less biff her in the chops? One does not.  And, by inference, there are a lot of other things a decent chap doesn’t do with his wife. No surprise that the sensual Alice is driven to desperate measures.

Attired in a subdued blue formal and black velvet shawl, balancing the triangle is the admirable Kitty Swink as Marion, the “gal pal” of both spouses. Kitty brought down the house with one glance, her silent reaction expressing much more than her trite sentiments and dull speeches. I suspect that given enough time alone with David, even Marion —who had boldly begged a kiss from David— would tire of his antiseptic ways.  A shared interest in Kipling can take you only so far.

Entr’acte
Devon Sorvari’s gentle rendition of ‘Someday I’ll Find You’ led the audience sweetly to Shadow Play.

Shadow Play
Early in scene one, justifying her decision to stay home, take sedatives, and go to bed (rather than attend a party), Victoria Gayforth (Nike Doukas) comments, “Alice’s parties are always dreary.” (Could it possibly be that in the 1930s Alice Ruthven hosts boring parties?)  Metaphorically speaking, Vicky is following the refrain from ‘Why Must the Show Go On?’: “Lose hope, take dope, and lock yourself in the john….”

As soon as Vicky swallows three Amytal and lies down on the omnipresent bed, Shadow Play grows increasingly murky: ambiguous about what “really” happens and what Vicky hallucinates.  Slipping into her drug-induced dream state, she first battles with her husband Simon (Harry Groener) about the possibility of divorce, then jumps back in time to sweet moments of their falling in love and going on honeymoon. Graceful and vulnerable as Vicky, Nike entrances both her husband and the audience. Watching her delirium, we are drawn into her angst about their rocky marriage.  In his heart-filled performance, Harry shines as the husband tangled in a double triangle.  Especially moving is the love song, ‘You Were There’ and his prescient urging on their honeymoon for Vicky to remember, “…if I’m bad or foolish or unkind, or even unfaithful, just remember this—because this is what really matters—this lovely understanding of each other….”

Again cast as a “pal” (although this time a genuinely supportive friend, not a husband-snatcher), Kitty Swink is excellent as Martha, who tries to dissuade Vicky of her fears and keep her from over-medicating. Failing at that, Martha exits, returning in the last scene, to ground the play back in the “real”. Versatile Gigi Bermingham disappears into the role of the almost-invisible maid, Lena.  Simon and Vicky’s predatory, annoying, and unlovable lovers—self-centered and petulant Sibyl  (Francia DiMase) and Michael (JD Cullum) —vex everyone.  Bill Brocktrup and Josh Clark complete the dream sequence as Vicky’s irritating young swain and Martha’s sensible husband, George. To guide the audience through the numerous jumps in location and time, Devon Sorvari amiably read selected stage directions.

Nike and Harry sing and dance a bit: just enough to whet the appetite for a full production.  Other than those brief dances, they stand apart until the last lines of the play, when Nike moves to Harry’s side, nestling comfortably in his arms as he promises, “It will be all right now—it really will.” In this moment, director Jonathan Lynn provides a welcome glimpse of an infrequently seen side of Coward: his tenderness.

A bookend to the opening music of Tonight at 8:30, Part One  (a recording of Coward singing), Part Three closes with the Ensemble wishing the audience a goodnight with ‘Sail Away’.

Kudos for Antaeus

Reviewed by Ken Starrett in February’s Home Chat, the Antaeus Theatre Company’s production of Tonight at 8:30 (Part One and Part Two) was recently nominated by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle for “Best Revival of 2007”.  [Awards will be presented on March 17th.] Also, by including Star Chamber in Part One, Antaeus achieved another Coward milestone in the U.S.: first presentation of all ten one-acts from the original Tonight at 8:30.

Gossipy Bits about North Hollywood

Parking for the Deaf West Theatre is sparse; you are likely to get a tour of NoHo while cruising for a space on Lankershim Boulevard. For those readers unfamiliar with Los Angeles, the NoHo District is the up-and-coming arts neighborhood (still a bit dodgy), bordered by Forest Lawn, Universal City, and beautiful downtown Burbank.  If you’re in the mood for catfish, down the block from the theatre is Miss Peaches soul food restaurant.  Just up the street from the diminutive Deaf West, the headquarters of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences sits in Academy Plaza. A mammoth golden sculpture of the Emmy award—looking like a cross between the Statue of Liberty and the Angel Moroni wondering why his trumpet turned into a fancy gyroscope—reminds visitors that they are in TV Land.

Interview with Jeanie Hackett (January 25, 2008)

When and how did you become interested in Noel Coward?
I went to acting school at NYU [New York University], and my initial experiences as an actress were at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.  It was through my training and the work at Williamstown that I first encountered almost all the major Coward plays, starting with Nude with Violin.   Director Nikos Psacharopoulos was really a wonderful director of Coward’s plays, so I fell in love with Coward as a young actress. I was lucky enough to play Joanna in Present Laughter at the Pasadena Playhouse.

This was The Antaeus Company’s first production at the Deaf West Theatre. What inspired you to produce Coward’s work, in particular, ‘Tonight at 8:30’?
For Antaeus, most of 2007 was more about the business aspects of running a theatre than the creative aspects.  We had to raise money. We had to find and move to an interim space.  And all of our wonderful company members, who are really well known for television and film work, who come in and volunteer here, work so hard for us. We had a big fundraiser last year; we raised five times more money than in any previous year, and the whole company worked on that.  We needed a party, and we wanted to show off our company. Also, we wanted a contrast to our previous productions, such as Brecht and Chekhov.  Coward just seemed the ideal, best way to introduce our audience to our brand new space. 

You had six directors for ‘Tonight at 8:30’. How did you get them to come together in their vision of the plays?
One of our biggest concerns was: how can we make this not a series of one-acts, but actually something that flows as a production?  So, one of the things I was most proud of was that a lot of the reviews mentioned the cohesiveness of the whole production – it did not look like one director took one play is this direction and another director took a play in another direction.  The production really had a sort of harmony and symmetry: and that’s what an ensemble company does. I was the artistic overseer for all the plays; I did all the transitions between things so there was one person looking at the whole shape of things. I got to work with six wonderful directors, and they very graciously accepted my input. I hope that I helped to guide the show stylistically as well.

Antaeus received critical acclaim for Tonight at 8:30.  How was the audience reception … and how was your box office?
We had people who had come to Part I and Part II, and after they saw both parts, they came back to see both parts again with a different cast. (Antaeus has a policy of double-casting every show we do.) People who saw all four casts were sending emails about how fun it was to see different actors in the roles, and how the plays changed and how different nuances came out with different actors. Audiences really enjoyed seeing not just two Noël Coward evenings, but four of them.

Our press didn’t hit until the week after our second opening, at which point our audience size kept going up and up from 70% ‘til we played to 103% capacity — we oversold!   And we did six shows a week. Normally, we only do four shows a week. Had we done only four shows a week, we would have been completely sold out every single night.

Your cast included members of the Antaeus ensemble as well as guest performers. They have a range of backgrounds including regional theatre, Broadway, movies, television, and standup comedy.  How did you cast ‘Tonight at 8:30’ from such a diverse group? Is there a common thread (of love for Noël Coward)?
We used 44 actors. A large percentage of our membership had done Noël Coward plays, were very familiar with Noël Coward, and they were so enthusiastic about the idea of presenting Tonight at 8:30, which had not been done completely in L.A. since 1942. [Co-Artistic Director] John [Apicella] and I came to the directors and said, “O.K.  We’ve got this play; this is the one you wanted to do. Here are the actors we think should be involved. What do you think?”  Given who our actors are, most of the directors just said, “Oh my God, that’s fantastic!” They were just so eager to direct the caliber of people with whom we get to work.

Antaeus is presenting performance workshops this winter on Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, American Classics, Restoration Comedy, and Shakespeare?  Will Coward be offered in a future workshop?
I teach acting, and in my Antaeus classes, I teach a month-long workshop on Coward.  Since Tonight at 8:30, I have been reading all the Coward plays I had missed: notably, Waiting in the Wings. We’re looking to do a workshop of that this summer.  We have terrific older actresses in our company, and Coward includes fabulous roles that require such discipline and such control, plus there’s a comic range perfect for our company. Actors rarely get to test their skills as much as when they perform Coward.

After reading the Letters of Noël Coward, I got very excited about Waiting in the Wings, especially because we have so many wonderful older actresses.  I’m not saying it’s definite yet, but I’m very excited about putting these great actresses together and doing a workshop of Waiting in the Wings for ClassicsFest this summer.

Until last year’s production in England, The Better Half was unpublished and had not been produced for 85 years. How did you discover The Better Half and what prompted you to add it to your benefit performance of Shadow Play and Ways and Means?
While we were negotiating for rights with Alan Brodie, we read about The Better Half in The New York Times. I wrote to Mr. Brodie about it, and he was kind enough to send me the script and to give us permission to perform it for the benefit. Jonathan Lynn, the head of our artistic advisory board and a friend of Mr. Brodie, will be directing this special benefit performance. As far as we know, we will be presenting the U. S. Premiere of The Better Half.

Paired with Shadow Play, The Better Half is exquisite. It’s thematically related, it’s about marriages and how marriages succeed and fail, and it’s very, very similar in tone. All three of the plays have as their central set piece a bed! And, in both The Better Half and Shadow Play, they’re talking about going to “Alice’s party” and what Alice’s parties are like — many themes are entwined together between these two plays.  Antaeus needs to do more than Coward in our classical repertoire, but I think these three plays together will make such a great production!  It’s very hard for me to get excited about anything else, because I’m so excited about how these three plays go together!

Any comments on the Noël Coward Society?
Before we started work on the production of Tonight at 8:30, I didn’t know there was a Noël Coward Society.  I’m so glad we joined.  I’m so appreciative that the Coward Society was there to help us in such a variety of ways that made our production a success.  It’s wonderful that a group of like-minded people created the Society, and that theatres like ours can take advantage of the resources it has to offer.

A final quest: the other unpublished play I’m trying to get my hands on is Volcano.  Any leads? Personally, I’m just in a whole Coward  “in love” phase!   It’s all I want to read these days.

For more information on The Antaeus Company, see their web site: www.antaeus.org

Kathy Williams