Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels Sex Farce Seems Fresh Even Today

Nineteen twenty-five was definitely the year to be Noël Coward. He had four shows running concurrently on London's West End and was starring in his sensational The Vortex from the previous season, the hottest ticket in town. With the musical revue On With the Dance and two comedies, Fallen Angels and Hay Fever, he was the celebrity of choice for his provocative, startling work that combined the sauciness of youth, the wit of Wilde, the musical inventiveness of Gilbert & Sullivan and the friskiness of forbidden sex. He was photographed, interviewed, censured. His dialogue entered the lexicon of the restless next generation of England still traumatized by WWI. "Darling," "marvelous" and "terrific" were Noël-isms heard everywhere.

His style was copied and envied. Young men and women spoke crisply and clipped their words with a forced staccato enunciation, just like Coward. He practically invented the martini as drink of choice among the smart set, as well as that silk dressing gown he wore in The Vortex, and then wore it whenever he was photographed at home. His brilliantined hair, described as like the head of a seal, was all the rage, as were cigarettes and, believe it or not, talking on the telephone. In 1925, Coward invented Noël Coward.

He created scandal with The Vortex, a searing melodrama about a nympho mother and her drug-addicted son. He added a classic song to the repertoire with "Poor Little Rich Girl" from On With the Dance. Hay Fever was a bauble about an eccentric family who collide over a weekend with their terribly (another Noël-ism) conventional guests; and Fallen Angels presented sex as something to be enjoyed, preferably with someone not your husband.

In 1925, this idea was more than shocking, it was subversive. Decades later, he might have been considered out of fashion and long past his sell-by date, but in the '20s, he caught the hedonistic craziness of the times better than any other contemporary playwright. Change was already here, wrought from the Great War's physical and psychic devastation. No wonder the '20s youngsters rebelled: They had seen what a mess the world had become. Let's party. And they did — drugs, booze, sex.

While not in the pantheon of classic Coward (Private Lives, Cavalcade, Design for Living, Present Laughter, Blithe Spirit and the films In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed and Brief Encounter), Fallen Angels is an utter lark of a sex comedy. Main Street Theater gives this romp the high gloss of Art Deco: stylish and stylized. The play gleams. Under director Claire Hart-Palumbo, who marshals her talented forces with the zing of a bracing martini, this cartoon farce is terrifically funny, constantly on the move and still rather shocking.

Best girlfriends Julia (Crystal O'Brien in best comic form and looking period-lovely) and Jane (Lisa Villegas in Jean Harlow mode) are bored with their marriages. After five years, the passion has gone. They love their husbands, but there's got to be more. Can we blame them? Their husbands are fatuous and nonresponsive and have more fun playing golf together than paying attention to their hot-to-trot wives. Fred (Bobby Haworth, super as a twit) and Willy (Dain Geist, insufferable stuffy) are clueless. Sporting a fine brush of a mustache, Haworth bears an uncanny resemblance to J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan.

Years before their marriages, Julia and Jane each had affairs with Frenchman Maurice (Joel Sandel, in perfectly smarmy Pepé Le Pew imitation, oozes Continental charm like an oil slick). He's back in town and wants to see them. The girls are so giddy at the prospect, they practically swoon. With their husbands off on another golf outing, they make a pact to stay together and await the rendezvous. Julia drapes herself over the sofa, while Jane poses languidly against a column. They're ripe for picking. The waiting occurs in the second act; so does a lot of drinking and very little eating. The girls get blasted, secrets come out, as do the claws. Overseeing this farce is the classic sassy Coward maid who knows more than all of them put together (Elizabeth Marshall Black, who steals every scene with twinkling yet bulldozing aplomb).

With a symmetry resembling that of Buckingham Palace, Coward structures his comedy with extraordinary technique, wit and surefire pace. Situations mirror each other, whether marriage, friendship or betrayal, so if one couple has trouble, so will the other couple soon enough. When Julia and Jane have an argument, rest assured that Fred and Willy will fight, too. Complications ensue like clockwork and always get the required hearty laugh. Coward juggles the nuts and bolts of playwriting with consummate flair, and the cast plays him with heigh-ho infectious glee.

The production is pretty tasty, enveloped in Eric L. Marsh's subtle lighting design. I don't know why, but the window effect is especially striking. Claire A. Jac Jones's set design with its Deco furniture, wallpaper panels and ubiquitous cocktail trolley is lovely, except for the unsightly back of the piano that smacks us square in the face. No swanky host would show us that backside. A longer drape might work. Margaret Crowley's costumes are aptly tweedy for the guys and diaphanous and silky for the gals. Julia's pajama pants are a singular Cowardly touch. But those wigs for the leading ladies?! They're appropriately styled for the period, but they look like...wigs. Where'd they come from, Arne's? Sometimes an intimate theater space is just that, too intimate.

Coward's deliciously prickly sex farce seems amazingly fresh even today. Julia and Jane eventually get what they want. If you think they're actually checking out Maurice's curtains as all three head upstairs, you've been watching the wrong marital comedy.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover