Noel Coward’s “A Song at Twilight” at Westport Playhouse thru May 17
By Tom Nissley
It might seem outdated in a world which has celebrity news anchors and journalists and athletes outing themselves without much ado, but “A Song at Twilight” describes the fears and ruminations of an earlier time, in which “the love that dares not speak its name” was kept well beneath the surface.
The plot describes an elderly and successful writer, Hugo Latimer (Brian Murray), his German Jewish wife and secretary, Hilde, Mia Dillon, and Carlotta, a woman with whom he had a serious affair decades ago (Gordana Rashovich). Carlotta has made contact with Hugo, out of the blue after years of no contact, and in fact has taken a room in the same fancy Swiss resort where Hugo is recuperating from some trauma (hip, Lungs, Heart?) She’s coming for lunch. Hilde has ordered a simple feast which mysteriously duplicates what Carlotta remembers as their first date, when she fell in love with Hugo. But that is tangential. Hilde is off for her own lunch with a friend. Carlotta has come to ask Hugo if she may include his love letters to her in her biography/memoirs. Hugo sputters, imagines, projects how their publication could embarrass him, and vehemently says “no.”
When Carlotta produces another batch of love letters, not to her but to Hugo’s boyfriend/lover who died after being rebuffed by Hugo for seeking financial help. The dialogue turns bitter when Carlotta recalls how she fell in love with Hugo and Hugo encouraged and embraced her affection but never really returned her love because he was in fact deep in a relationship with his male secretary and lover. So part of her memories are inclined towards revenge for what was stolen from her in their so-called love. I tuned out from the script at this point. It’s a weak and naive argument. However, old Hugo takes it seriously. He pauses to remember his tender feelings for his old love, while at the same time being terrified of having any letters publicized that would reveal the same-sex portion of his history. It doesn’t fit with what he’s imagined or intended for the world to know about him.
The play certainly must be seen as partly biographical, but the playwright pointed also to some old friends (Max Beerbaum and Somerset Maugham) who had been secretly involved with other men, and scuttled their relationships with self-indulgence, which, late in life, can perhaps make the past seem more black and white than it ever was.
But the confusion the play spawns about when love is real, what or who is a lover, and how does love expand or progress within a relationship, remains a philosophical dilemma that Coward allowed to meander without resolution. Hilde demonstrates independence and loyalty both, then stands up in remarkable feminist fashion to Hugo, and also maneuvers Carlotta into returning the secret letters. Hugo allows Carlotta to publish his letters to her. And we see him dreaming of the boyfriend once more.
The play was well acted by the three protagonists, and suitably directed by Mark Lamos. The set, by Alexander Dodge, reflected the splendor of an exclusive Swiss resort, and the costumes, by Fabio Fablini, were great.
Nevertheless, having sat through “A Song at Twilight” in Westport, I could wish to have seen the production 40 years ago in New York that featured Hume Croyn and Jessica Tandy and Anne Baxter. I suspect I would have liked it more.
Tom Nissley, for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre
May 13, 2014