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.