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One of the patterns in the lives of great modern comic playwrights comes as they move into the second half of life. At that point their work tends to balance the usual humor with a more serious undertone. Perhaps they reach for something new. More likely, a greater life experience with its backward looks and painful mistakes balances out their humorous view of the world with something nearer the heart.
Most certainly this happened to the great Noel Coward – a man of wit, bite and fame. He was also troubled along with many fellow men of letters by the cost of that fame, as their lives were lived in the spotlight in a Britain where homosexuality in men, including themselves, was punishable by imprisonment. Just a year before this Neanderthal law was repealed, he offered up a new, and now comparatively obscure play “A Song at Twilight,” about the devil’s compromise men such as himself were forced into. It proves stunning in its honesty, as well as carrying with it the traditional wry tension between the sexes.
Now at the Pasadena Playhouse, “A Song at Twilight” highlights the struggles of being a gay man from the inside, written by someone all too familiar with the risks connected in his own lifetime to simply being who he was.
Sir Hugo Latymer, a celebrated novelist of international fame, is relaxing in a suite with a beautiful view of the Alps, being waited upon by his favorite hotel employee, the charming and efficient Felix, as his wife Hilde sorts out his affairs. Suddenly he encounters – once again – the woman with whom he once had an affair, who arrives with substantive proof that his life in public is not his private truth. The results mix humor, fondness, terror and a gradual understanding of the damage a hidden life has caused not only Latymer but all those with whom he is closely connected.
Bruce Davison gives Latymer the sharp wit and casual elegance as he stands in for Coward’s own view of life. His timing is quick, and his pathos understated. It’s a beautifully and correctly underplayed part. As his German wife, Roxanne Hart brings an innate sadness to the brusk, efficient woman. Indeed, it underscores the price paid by anyone fond of the person whose lie becomes a life’s work.
Sharon Lawrence’s sharp-edged, wise yet often brutal wit as the dreaded former lover Carlotta is just the right foil for Davison, and interestingly for Hart as well. The contrasts between characters, and yet their interconnectedness at certain moments, is a sign of both the playwright’s and the actors’ art. Zach Bandler makes the affable Felix a more fully drawn character than many a hotel employee in such plays, radiating both efficient professionalism and an underlying sympathy.
Yet, as is often the case with Coward’s work, in the end what one remembers is the feel and theme of the piece. This is enhanced by Art Manke’s beautifully structured direction, which keeps what could easily become a kind of panel discussion on its feet and human. Tom Buderwitz’s set design is, in itself, a character – filled with grandeur and openness even as its central occupant finds himself incapable of at least the second and to some extent the first.
In short, the play and this production become deeply moving even as they often prove humorous. Consider how many people in that dark century of law had to live a lie in order to avoid being jailed for being themselves. Would this were a tale only told in the past tense, but as recent actions in central Africa and Russia attest, people in some parts of the world still live under that same Damoclesian sword.
And how fascinating that in the same week as this lovely production opened, Coward’s own home country allowed same-sex couples to marry. Coward would have been pleased.
What: “A Song at Twilight” When: Through April 13, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $44 – $64 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org