Paxton Whiteheadand Hayley Mills
Paxton Whitehead
and Hayley Mills
Noël Coward must be spinning in his grave. If so, that's more activity than is currently taking place on stage at the Lucille Lortel, where Hayley Mills, Judith Ivey, and Paxton Whitehead are performing in two of the last three plays the Master wrote and starred in as his final contribution to the world's comedy/drama annals.

Though the current offering is called Suite in 2 Keys, Coward's original version was titled Suite in Three Keys and was meant to be performed in two parts: On one evening, the one-acts "Shadows of the Evening" and "Come Into the Garden, Maud," were offered; and, on a second evening, the full-length play "A Song at Twilight" was the fare. Appearing with Coward in the 1966 West End production were Irene Worth and Lilli Palmer. When the plays were imported to New York, Coward was too ill to recreate his roles, so Hume Cronyn--abetted by Jessica Tandy and Anne Baxter--took on "Come Into the Garden, Maud" and "A Song at Twilight" as Noël Coward in Two Keys.

Now, after striving diligently for the last year or more and watching Coward's centenary year run out, a long roster of producers has gotten a reconfigured version of Coward's work on its feet. In order to do so, they've dropped "Come Into the Garden, Maud," reinstated "Shadows of the Evening," edited "A Song at Twilight" into one act, chose not to spell out the word "two" in the logo, and brought in John Tillinger--practiced at directing English comedies--to guide the actors around the austerely sumptuous James Noone set which serves both plays.

That Suite in 2 Keys is a listless enterprise is, in part, Coward's responsibility. Although his younger days on stage quickly became the stuff of London theater legend, with the prolific and amusing Coward eventually dubbed "Destiny's Tot" and celebrated as such, he was no longer the suave nose-thumber by the time he reached his 60s. The titles "Shadows of the Evening" and "A Song at Twilight" both hint strongly at his darkening vision. Though a strain of melancholy could be heard in Coward's brilliant songs early on, it was in the Suite plays that he sternly faced subjects like aging, coping, betrayal, compromise, acceptance, disappointment, missed opportunity.

Faced them, yes. Dealt with them--well, not exactly. In "Shadows of the Evening", George Hilgay, a publisher who has just learned he is going to die, returns to the Swiss hotel where's he's been staying while undergoing medical tests. He walks in on his estranged wife, Anne, and his mistress, Linda Savignac, with whom he's lived for many years. The ladies, thinking George doesn't know his prognosis, have just had a few drinks and reached an agreement to put their differences aside so they can both help their man through his last days. Over yet more drinks, George informs them that he knows what's happening; he suggests they all drop whatever charade they might be tempted to play and simply be themselves for as long as he's got.

Wondering how to get through the impending months, Linda says, "But we can't talk indefinitely." Oh, no? If not indefinitely, then until they bore the knickers off of anyone who overhears them--this despite the articulate exclamations they make while getting on each others' nerves and then trying to smooth things over with even more alcoholic beverages. "I'm not interested in the scruffy surmises of the mediocre," Sir Hugo exclaims grandiosely in one fit of disgust. Anne (aware she was never much of a lover) and Linda (aware she will always be the other woman) have an especial tendency to bicker.

Curiously, Coward used this "two-women-in-one-man's-life-and-not-liking-it" setup for Waiting in the Wings, also currently on view in New York. His treatment of the theme in "Shadows of the Evening" is unfortunately similar. Although it seems as if sparks are going to fly in the play, few do. After exchanging a couple of caustic words, the ladies (in both plays, actually) opt to do the adult thing: They bury the hatchet. A wise choice in life, possibly--but not in a play, where pulling the plug on confrontation is a cue for dramatic thud.


So it's Coward's fault that "Shadows of the Evening" has all the pizzazz of a warmed-over casserole. The Novocain injection that numbs "A Song at Twilight," however, is administered by Tillinger and his players. In this piece, Sir Hugo Latymer, a best-selling fiction writer, bullies his long-suffering wife, Hilde. But he becomes less domineering when his former mistress, Carlotta Gary, drops in on the Swiss hideaway to ask if she can use his letters for an autobiography she's about to publish. (There's that "two-women..." setup again.) Miffed, Hugo says no, which provokes a threat from Carlotta: She'll publish a different batch of Hugo's letters that she's come across in which he writes passionately to the only true love of his life, a man called Perry Sheldon. At this point Hugo begins to reconsider his response to Carlotta and, indeed, acknowledges to himself that he's spent a lifetime denying his deepest emotions.

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.