A Talent to Bemuse

Noel Coward was no Eugene O'Neill, nor did he want to be. His witty urban dramas were meant to entertain, nothing much more, and at that they succeeded sparklingly well. But while Coward's plays may be lightweight, their witty urbanity and suave frolic gives them a highly engaging keenness. When Coward died in 1973, New York Times drama critic Clive Barnes wrote about his comedies that "they have a certain passion and a durable thinness -- like a razor blade." Not so, sadly, Noel, Noel, the revue of Coward's songs and memoirs currently playing at Stages Theater. Although, like Coward, Stages doesn't aspire here for dramatic grandeur, it has missed his sophisticated acuity, and displays only a faint talent to amuse.

Noel Coward reflected the Zeitgeist of the elegant, decadent 1920s and Noel, Noel strives to evoke that era with a mirror backdrop, cabaret tables around the stage (at which especially bold audience members may sit) and a city silhouette around the eaves. The revue takes Coward's songs -- some splendid, some forgettable -- and stitches them together with recollections and anecdotes culled from the playwright's memoirs. No one actor tries to play Coward; instead, his lines are divvied up between three women and one man who, in terms of characterization, are all rather interchangeable.

For some opaque reason, the actors often pretend to read their lines -- from copies of Coward's autobiography, from letters, from postcards. This conceit, unfortunately, plays up the rather undramatic nature of the evening. Indeed, many of the conceits are puzzling and seem either arbitrary or rather too obvious. An actor gets his hair cut during one song for no reason I could discern. In another, the two singers pretend to be boss and secretary simply because of a passing reference in their song to dictation.

Although the four performers all do decent enough jobs, their blending into a homogeneous ensemble does away with any "star" appeal. Coward was in love with stars, and was usually inspired by the charisma of a particular actor or actress when he wrote his plays. The troupe in Noel, Noel seems more like a crew of efficient stagehands and extras, muttering "rutabaga rutabaga" to create crowd scenes and moving on- and off-stage with dispatch. Also, much of the Coward charm comes from context, his situations set up so impeccably that such lines as "Go on" or "This haddock's disgusting" send the audience rolling. Taken out of context, many of the jokes either fall flat or don't make much sense. At Stages, neither enough information nor enough drama is presented to make Coward come alive. When he's quoted on the subject of his modesty, it's hard to catch the ironic nature of his statements. Likewise, in the song "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans," written near the end of World War II and intended as a sardonic comment on those advocating leniency, it's impossible to glean from the revue's presentation -- complete with smartly strutting WACs -- whether the song is ironic or straight. A Coward revue needs a staging clever enough to match its subject.

This evening was "devised" by Sidney Berger who, as head of the University of Houston drama department and director of the summer Shakespeare festival at Miller Outdoor Theatre, has certainly proven himself capable of producing topnotch theater, both light and heavy. But the script has the feel of being dashed off, as if Stages was looking for a holiday crowd pleaser and thought the Noel Coward concept would fill the bill, with the added Christmasy tie-in of the name (although there's nary a reference to Yule during the show). True, Noel Coward was the prince of dashing off scripts; he wrote his popular Private Lives in four days while recuperating from a nervous breakdown due to overwork, or so the story goes. But while Coward's breakneck method may have been just the trick for producing his lightning-fast repartee, with Stages the result is simply flat and rather tired.

Director Buck Ross, founder and director of the UH opera program, does make sure the musical aspects of the evening are pleasant -- the ensemble has a nice sound and every voice pulls its own weight. However, missing is that musical comedy panache, that sentimental, heart-tugging showmanship. High points are the three women's poignant "I'm Mad About the Boy" and the ensemble's chipper "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." But much of Ross' direction relies on the obvious and one-dimensional; what characterization there is too often devolves into the melodramatic or stereotypic. For example, in "We Must All Be Very Kind to Auntie Jessie," the actors play at being naughty children, grimacing ludicrously at the audience and tiresomely drawing childish cartoons.

Susan Shofner (who many may remember as Nellie Bess in Houston Repertory Theatre's The Night Hank Williams Died) is the only ensemble member with any sense of wry irony, that quintessential Coward characteristic. She does a nice rendition of "I'll Follow My Secret Heart," carried off with poise and aplomb. Despite his lip curl and saucer eyes, Scott James comes off a bit too good-natured and fresh-scrubbed for a Coward male. Kathleen Knight has a twinkly sameness and Julia Kay looks repeatedly distraught and melodramatically pouty, although she rises to the occasion when she plays a Cockney chargirl pining after a cinematic heartthrob.

As for the on-stage accompaniment, Steven Jones was adept, playful and unflagging on piano and Richard Wilke did a game job on woodwinds, ranging from flute to saxophone, despite the occasional stumble.

While Coward's domain was the worldly and rather elegantly decedent, I suspect Stages is aiming at a more middlebrow crowd. They've devised an entertainment for Nescafe society (as Coward called the Las Vegas audiences who came to his cabaret act), and although the evening is benignly pleasant, it carries little of the spark and bite of Noel himself.

Noel, Noel plays through January 1 at Stages Theater, 3201 Allen Parkway. 527-8243.


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