The set-up: In the late '30s, Noel Coward became the most patriotic English playwright since Shakespeare.
During the first World War, as a late teen, he was blasé and uncommitted, although he had friends and lovers who died at the front. In 1918 he was drafted into the army, but discharged after nine months for medical reasons: Coward suffered from incipient tuberculosis all his life.
His playwriting heyday in the '20s and '30s saw him in pajamas, silk dressing gown, and holding a martini, as he dissected the social and sexual mores in his idiosyncratic, and utterly unconventional, comedies such as Hay Fever, Private Lives, and Design for Living. He fought his war in the upper crust's bedrooms and salons.
The rise of fascism in the early '30s, though, brought out his love for all things England; his diaries and notebooks are full of fervor and admiration for the "stiff upper lip" of English resolve, fortitude, and indomitable courage.
His effete Wilde-esque persona morphed into a national treasure after such patriotic films as Cavalcade (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1934), This Happy Breed (a pastoral about the ordinary English who keep plugging on), and In Which We Serve (his tribute to the British navy); and in songs like "London Pride" and the wickedly ironic "Let's Not Be Beastly to the Germans." His last great stage hit had been Blithe Spirit (1941), a superb romp through spiritualism with a man facing two wives at the same time, one dead, one very much alive. But his theater star was on the decline.
After the war when he went to Paris to supervise a French production of Blithe Spirit, Coward was astonished to find an "atmosphere of subtle disintegration, lassitude, and above all suspicion" because of the Nazi occupation. The collaborators, part time appeasers, and outright sympathizers affected him deeply. He imagined what would have happened to England if it had lost the war, so he wrote a new play, Might Have Been, soon to be rechristened Peace in Our Time (1947), a reference to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's infamous gullibility to the duplicitous Munich Agreement, England's peace treaty with Hitler in September, 1938. As he addressed a cheering throng at the airport upon his arrival, Chamberlain announced, "I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Now I recommend you go home, and sleep quietly in your beds."
The world slept through Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia the following March, then suddenly woke up when Germany invaded Poland, September, 1939. WW II was on.
Coward's impeccable timing failed him. After the war, England was in no mood to relive the terror, however couched as fantasy. His cri de coeur fell on deaf ears. The play bombed.
The execution: But in hindsight, we can appreciate Coward's special talent as a superb craftsman.
Peace in Our Time, a striking melodrama of what might have been, is an intimate epic of the British heart. It has drama, comedy, and shock in equal measure. Patriotic speeches mimic Henry V, only brought down to pub level; reversals and surprises occur just a bit before you think they might. This is old-fashioned playwriting skill of the highest kind, the kind of play they don't write any more.
Set in the Shattock's family bar, The Shy Gazelle near Knightsbridge and Sloane Square (a very tony neighborhood nowadays), the entire panoply of English society shows up to drink and debate the fate of conquered England. Churchill's been shot as a traitor, the King and Queen are imprisoned at Windsor, there's a concentration camp on the Isle of Wight.
The stalwart duo, rough and ready pub owner Fred and wife Nora (Rutherford Cravens and Celeste Roberts), run the neighborhood pub, a family club of sorts. Feisty daughter Doris (Hannah Kreig) fills in when needed; soldier son Stevie (Billy Reed) hasn't been heard from and is presumed dead.
The bar regulars include: cabaret actress Lyia and businessman husband George (Elizabeth Marshall Black and Joe Kirkendall); novelist Janet Braid, of questionable sex but impeachable moral fiber (Pamela Vogel), and her "best friend" Alma (Amy Garner Buchanan); Chorley Bannister, an influential magazine editor whose sympathies lie with the German conquerors, or anyone else in power at the time (Joel Sandel); the middle class Bannisters whose son is imprisoned in that Isle of Wight concentration camp (Carl Masterson and Lisa A. Williams); sympathetic neighborhood physician Dr. Venning (Joel F. Grothe); bickering but loving lower class couple Alfie and Lily Blake (Jonathan Gonzalez and Michelle Britton); and, boo, hiss, the German "manager" of this section of London, Albrecht Richter (Fritz Dickmann). Other patrons who come and go: streetwalker Gladys (Skyler Sinclair) with her German john; an Austrian set designer whom Chorley has his eyes on; and assorted Nazis and English good fellows. It's an impressive cast list, a who's who of English society straining under occupation. The good guys shine, the bad guys glower, the quislings are detestable.
I am loathe to single out any of the fine cast, but Dickmann -- dare I say, "Herr" Dickmann - is wickedly suave and repugnant. His Albrecht Richter can proudly stand with any of those indelible '40s Hollywood Nazi portraits of the "man you love to hate," whether by Otto Preminger, Conrad Veidt, or Walter Slezak. Sophisticated, seething, and righteous in his dubious Reich theories, this villain sets Coward's play aflame. Every time Dickmann enters, you don't know what to expect. He might bash someone, arrest someone, or offer them a drink. We pray for his comeuppance. You'll have to see the play to find out if he gets it.
Under Rebecca Greene Udden's uplifting direction, Main Street Theater's production is spot-on. Everything works: Margaret Crowley's worn, period costumes (those bobby socks on the women are especially delightful); Claire A. Jac Jones's hardscrabble bar set; Eric L. Marsh's amber lighting; Shawn W. St. John's atmospheric BBC sound design (there's Coward himself warbling "London Pride" and preeminent big band singer Al Bowlly, too, during the scene changes),
The verdict: Will the underground resistance succeed? Will England survive? Will Fred finally get the Gordon's gin of his dreams? If you think you know your Noel Coward, Peace in Our Time will surprise in so many ways. At the end, you'll be waving the Union Jack and singing "God Save the Queen." Golly good show, what?
Peace in Our Time continues through October 19 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard. Purchase tickets online at mainstreettheater.com or call 713-524-6706. $20-$39.