Coward's A Song at Twilight -- The Cost of Living a Lie
By Karen Isaacs
I was looking forward to this production at Hartford Stage of Noel Coward's Song at Twilight. It is a later play of his and touches on some interesting and serious issues.
Coward is too often regarded as a playwright who wrote sophisticated drawing room comedies like Privates Lives and Blithe Spirit. People forget that he often touched on topics that were considered scandalous in his time -- from menage a trois to drug addiction.
Song at Twilight, which was written in 1965, tells the story of an important British literary figure (Sir Hugh Latymer) now in declining years, who is supposedly based on Somerset Maugham. A former mistress (Carlotta) shows up at the hotel in Switzerland where he and his wife, his former secretary, live. She has letters -- the love letters he wrote to her during their affair when they were both in their early 20s AND other letters. Ones he wrote to a man. She apparently wants permission to publish his letters in her autobiography -- it would definitely increase the sales appeal. When he refuses, she tells him about the letters that were bequeathed to her by the man in question. The revelation of these letters would be scandalous; not only was homosexuality still against the law in England, but Sir Hugh has carefully maintained a facade of heterosexuality. By the way, homosexuality was decriminalized in England while the play was in rehearsals.
So what will happen? In this one act play -- originally it was two acts -- Carlotta and Sir Hugh spar at each other over their love affair, his literary reputation, her career, and the other man. It has some of the famous Coward witty humor -- but it also deals with the costs of living a lie.
When the play was originally produced, Coward himself played Sir Hugh, which was somewhat daring since Coward was a homosexual who had lived a discrete but open life. One can just imagine his clipped diction and his brittle inflections in the dialogue.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed in this production directed by Mark Lamos, the former artistic director of Hartford Stage and current artistic director of Westport Country Playhouse. He usually has a sure hand, thus it is doubly disappointing that this production is weak in so many areas.
Hartford Stage is a wide, deep space and though the apron has been filled in with seats, the space seams cavernous. The usually deft Alexander Dodge, who created the set, has not created a balance between a generic hotel suite and one that the permanent residents have personalized in any way.
The cast holds promise: Brian Murray, Mia Dillon and Gordana Rashovich play Sir Hugh, his wife, and Carlotta respectively. Yet only Dillion, as the German born wife, seems to have truly captured the character. Murray was my biggest disappointment; I am a fan of the actor and have seen many brilliant characterizations of his. At the performance I saw, he was at times inaudible and seldom seemed to have the vitality or cynicism required. While Sir Hugh is aging, he uses infirmity as a shield more than a reality.
Lamos has made some other questionable choices. The play has been cut to a brief 80-minutes from two acts. In addition, at two times, behind the scrim you see two naked young men. While obviously representing Sir Hugh and his lover long ago, the scenes distract from both the dialogue and, at the finale, the emotions.
The play will be at Westport Country Playhouse beginning April 29, and it may be that the production will work better on its smaller stage and more intimate theater.
A Song at Twilight is at the Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church St, Hartford, through March 16. For tickets and information, call the box office at 860-527-5151 or visit www.HartfordStage.org. It will be at Westport Country Playhouse from April 29 to May 17. For tickets at Westport, call 203-227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.
This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers March 12, 2014 and online at Zip06.com.