Perhaps it's easy for a director and three actors to read "A Song at Twilight" and conclude that, while it boasts a brittle humor, it's every bit as static as "Shadows of the Evening." But the play is much more than three witty antagonists lobbing arch remarks at one another. Viewed when it was first produced as indictment of the way W. Somerset Maugham led his closeted life, the play examines depression more thoroughly than Coward ever had--maybe because the thinly veiled Maugham references are a smokescreen for self-revelation.
The text's unflinching observations are missing here, though, because Paxton Whitehead--while speaking with his usual clarity and authority--only gives Sir Hugo a surface reading. And Tillinger hasn't helped the actor fill Latymer's dimensions. But though the actor and the director have let Coward down, it's the playwright who may take the blame--the argument that, though he often tweaked superficiality in his comedies, he never quite rose above it himself. If this occurs here and the playwright is again dismissed as cleverly trivial, it would be a shame, since the recent London production of the full-length "Song at Twilight"--in which Corin Redgrave was magnificently despondent as Sir Hugo--proved incontrovertibly that the work is more mature, more disturbing, more genuinely sophisticated than even Coward may have realized. (A transfer of that production to New York was considered by its producers, but is unlikely to happen now.) Indeed, the London "Song at Twilight," at twice the running time of the New York version, seemed half as long.
But back to the presentation at hand: Whitehead is better in "Shadows of the Evening," finding more of an affinity with George Hilgay's stiff-upper-lip attitude toward his waning life. As Mills (whose New York stage debut this is) and Ivey, they are never less than competent, meeting the demands made on them to adapt and switch accents. The thing about Ivey is that what so often makes her convincing is her ability to seem everyday-natural; here, called on to portray two women steeped in Euro-wiles, she's caught acting. Mills, now 53 but still sporting Pollyanna's face, looks completely at ease, but--aside from utilizing some German consonants in the second play--doesn't do much to differentiate the two feet-on-the-ground characters she's been assigned. As Felix, a waiter who sees to the characters' every room-service need, Paolo Andino glides in and out smoothly.
In 1929, Coward charmed his huge and eager following with Bittersweet. It's a pity that, in 2000, he couldn't be represented by a better Suite.