he multitalented Nol Coward (English playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, director, producer, superstar) was so circumspect about his gay life, he never mentioned it in his two autobiographies, nor allowed any biographer to hint at it, nor even confessed it in his diaries, except in wishy-washy euphemisms when he described falling under the spell of “that old black magic.” There was a time not so long ago when even the most flamboyant performers stayed firmly ensconced in the closet, either as “confirmed bachelors” or as husbands to sympathetic mates who would cover their tracks. Living in England, where the recent stench from the notorious trial of Oscar Wilde set back legislative gay reform for decades, Coward faced blackmail, public scorn and the loss of his career if he came out. It just wasn't done back then. You lived with your gayness as best you could. Only those in the exclusive “club” knew what that green carnation in your lapel actually meant.
Coward was enough of a theater man to know exactly how to present himself without riling the censors, while at the same time remaining true to himself. He couched his forbidden sexuality in urbane, sophisticated wit and charm. If there's anyone in show business who epitomizes Art Deco, it's Nol Coward. He used society's cursed opinion of same-sex unions to his own advantage, morphing into a worldly “man about town” with brilliantined hair who dripped bons mots, sipped martinis and lounged about in silk dressing gowns over pajamas. He made a fetish out of cafe society glamour and sparkling, bitchy dialogue; his characters are often unconcerned with, or downright contemptuous of, society's judgment. His works mock marriage as constricting and unnatural, while embracing an unbridled sexuality thatÕs open for negotiation, never endorsing gay exclusivity, but with one eye on the box office keeping all options on the table. Hidden in plain sight, he shows us the worldview of an amoral bon vivant that keeps the straights guessing.
This soigne, double-edged take on contemporary sexual mores imbues his work with controversy and sharp, pungent comedy. His plays are extremely funny. “The Master” (his nickname among show folk) was the paragon of cool. He still is. You can see for yourself in two superb renditions: Design for Living at Main Street Theater and Blithe Spirit at Country Playhouse. (His other comic masterpiece, Private Lives, opens June 1 at Theatre Southwest.) It's a veritable Coward festival out of the closet and onto the stage!
Design for Living (1933) can be neatly summed up by Leo, one of the trio of main characters, as he explains the situation to Gilda: “The actual facts are so simple. I love you. You love me. You love Otto. I love Otto. Otto loves you. Otto loves me. There now! Start to unravel from there.”
Coward's clear-eyed look at a mnage trois and how natural such an arrangement can be was a scandalous affair at its Broadway premiere the hottest ticket in town, with Coward costarring with legendary married acting duo Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. (London had to wait until 1939, when Lord Chamberlain okayed Design.) The play hasn't lost one glimmer of its trenchant humor, sending off sparks of wit as if its atypical love triangle were encased in sequins. Gilda (Shannon Emerick, sleek and poised like an Ert sculpture) is the artistic catalyst for Leo (Dwight Clark, exuding youthful sexiness) and Otto (Ilich Guardiola, dapper and insouciant). She positively can not do without them, nor they without her, nor they without each other. Their bedroom repositioning throughout the comedy only reinforces what they've all realized from the beginning: The three of them are a unit inseparable, and to hell with convention. The bohemian life has never seemed so right and true as when Coward's patented banter is bandied about by these three pros, ably supported by Michelle Britton's hilariously flummoxed maid, Al Baker's earnest Earnest and Matthew Redden and Morgan McCarthy's staid upper-crust Carvers. The dream Deco settings by Troy Scheid, the radiantly apt period costumes by Margaret Crowley and the swanky, white-tie-and-tails direction by Claire Hart-Palumbo present this Design in a memorable showcase fit for Tiffany.
In his finely spun comedy Blithe Spirit (1941), Coward applies a potent gay subtext to the realm of the occult. Unhappily married to ice-cold shrew Ruth (Claire Hunt), Charles (Lee Honeycutt) inadvertently conjures up former wife Elvira (Elizabeth Marshall) while doing research for a book on mediums and how bunk they are, especially those of Madame Arcati (Tess Wells), who's conducting the sance in his living room. Charles is terribly torn between duty to marriage vows and the sexy possibility of having the best of both worlds. He'd be content to have Elvira remain indefinitely.
Most will see this as typical bedroom farce about one man and the two very different women who love him. It's extremely wry. But since this is Coward at his most devilish, it's impossible not to read this plot as a classic closeted gay triangle: husband, wife and husband's lover all in the same room at the same time, vying for one another. Country Playhouse supplies an elegant staging no matter how you read the subtext, with lovely ensemble playing from the above quartet. Again, the sets (Tom Boone), costumes (April Marchant and Caroline Grunewald) and direction (Stuart Purdy) support Coward to a tee.
In uncaring hands, Nol Coward can veer toward the superficial and arch. When performed with elegance and dexterity, though, as both Main Street and Country Playhouse do, Coward soars heavenward.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events