The show: Noel Coward's "A Song at Twilight" at Hartford Stage
What makes it special?: This late-Coward play is staged by Mark Lamos, former artistic director of Hartford Stage in the theater's 50th anniversary season.
First impressions?: It's hardly a caviar and pink champagne night for eminent author Sir Hugo Latymer, though both are served with elan during the course of the problematic 1966 play.
When a visit from his decades-ago former mistress Carlotta with her possession of secret love letters threatens the foundation of his literary legacy and self-appointed role of "truth teller," one expects a bracing battle.
Instead it's an uneven fight, with the nasty, bitter writer as, well, a coward, with only a last-second's moment of understanding of the damage that he's done, a life he's destroyed and a love he has lost. The production, too, lacks punch, precision and at times is as icy and jagged as the Alpine setting of Sir Hugo's hotel suite.
Is it a two-person play?: No, Sir Hugo (Brian Murray) has a German-born, long-suffering wife Hilde (Mia Dillon) of 20 years. And apart from Carlotta (Gordana Rashovich) there's also a handsome waiter, Felix (Nicholas Carriere) to who Hugo has taken a not-so-curious interest in.
Aha: Yes. Few are fooled by Sir Hugo, which gives the play some pathos but little more.
Well, it was a different time then: Of course and one of the few moments of sympathy we have towards the old boy is when we see terror in his eyes when he speaks of homosexuality being a criminal offense. But Coward stacks the deck too much against Hugo, the self-proclained "truth-teller," stressing the character's vile selfishness, duplicity and near-sadistic cruelty. Brilliant, yes, but also a calculating careerist whose choices come with a cost. As Carlotta says, denial is a song that never ends.
Early in the play Hugo refers to Carlotta's impending arrival as a "rendezvous with the past," and there's a bit of drawing room melodrama to the evening, of carefully revealed information in the high-stakes, high-mannered game of reputation. But what must have been scandalous more than 50 years ago no longer holds the same power now. We see Hugo's dilemma as sad at best, of having his life and writing exposed as a lie —- or, at worst, simply getting his moral comeuppance.
But surely the Noel Coward dialogue...: There's many moments of wit, some dripping with sarcasm, others with amusing reactions. And Murray's masterful baritone makes the best of the bon mots when they're not gasp-worthy insulting. But there's not a wide palette to play here —- or at least in this production that has its share of shaky moments —- beyond pomposity, exasperation and shock.
Rashovich has a fine time playing the Carlotta, playing both the grand and the vulgar —- and she looks smashing. But she also shows her intelligence, dignity and humanity as she grapples with uncertainty of her own power play. Dillon also shows many colors to her character as Hugo's wife who finds a not-so-surprising bond with Carlotta. Dillon, who gives an innate warmth to Hilde, steps beyond the stereotype as we learn about her character's past and her life with and without Hugo.
Who will like it?: Some Coward fans since the play is not often produced.
Who won't: Those wanting something more from such an intriguing premise.
For the kids?: This could be a cautionary tale for the it-gets-better generation but not for children. (There's also a smidgin of dimly-lit nudity.)
Side note: This co-production with the Westport Country Playhouse, where Lamos is artistic director, will play there April 29 to May 17.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less?: As Carlotta tells Hugo of their situation: "Rather bitter comedy I admit, but not entirely unenjoyable."
The basics: The play runs through March 16 at the theater, 50 Church St., downtown Hartford. The play runs 85 minutes, without an intermission. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday nights at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and matinees on Sundays and select Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. Information at 860-527-5151 and http://www.hartfordstage.org.
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