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Patricia O'Connell and Simon Jones in Long Island Sound
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Noël Coward's Long Island Sound opens and closes with the jaunty strains of one the writer's ditties, "I Like America," but almost everything that happens in between suggests a writer who doesn't like America--or anywhere else--very much. Sir Noël based this 1947 farce on his own 1939 short story "What Mad Pursuit," which in turn was based on a ghastly weekend he endured at the home of a rich Hamptons matron in 1937. As the official account goes, West End producer Binkie Beaumont optioned the play but then thought it "too American" for London audiences, so into storage it went. It was exhumed half a century later by Coward archivist Barry Day, who handed it to The Actors Company Theatre (TACT), which is now offering Long Island Sound's world premiere. If you are a Coward completist, you'd better rush; any Coward comedy is good for at least a few yocks. But this misconceived production may finish off Long Island Sound for another 50 years.

Simple in structure and unsurprising in execution, Long Island Sound borrows ideas from two earlier, more polished Coward works: Hay Fever (rich bohemian hosts show houseguests an awful time) and Present Laughter (suave Coward stand-in surrounded by demanding acolytes). A third antecedent is Cole Porter's parlor song "Thank You So Much, Mrs. Lowsborough-Goodby," an account of an "infinite" weekend in the country that accomplishes in three minutes what it takes Long Island Sound over two hours to do.

We're at the gracious North Shore Steinhauser estate--though, in Troy Hourie's thrift shop antique set, it's more like "good gracious"--where the much-married Louise Steinhauser is hosting Evan Lorrimer, a celebrated British writer-historian on a Northeast lecture tour. The basic joke is that Louise promises Evan peace and quiet but delivers chaos and clatter. The guest is forced to share a bathroom with a maddeningly silly, gossipy musical comedy star (possibly based on Clifton Webb) who chatters aimlessly about intimate friends that Evan has never met.

But that's just the beginning of the indignities: Horrid new guests keep piling into the Steinhauser living room, drinking nonstop rounds of Scotch and treating Evan as their pet Brit intellectual. Louise wants to tell him all her stories of unhappy marriages and love affairs. A past-her-prime vocalist (played by an actress who can't sing, and does) is drunkenly attracted to him, as is a dimwitted cowboy-movie star (one wonders if Coward actually wrote a male kiss into the script in 1947 or if this director felt he had to gay up the material). A dowager Connecticut Republican, oddly sporting a British accent, flies into high dudgeon when Evan offhandedly praises FDR. Intrigues surface, tempers flare, and yes, hair is pulled. Evan is gradually reduced to a moaning, sweating, crawling heap, and can anyone blame him?

Hell is...other people:
Jones as Evan Lorrimer with tormentors
Delphi Harrington, Greg McFadden, and Cynthia Harris
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Had Long Island Sound gone on the boards in 1947, maybe Coward would have noticed in rehearsal certain structural problems that are less apparent on the page. One: The first-act exposition is endless. Two: Evan aside, there's no one up there to care about; Coward is at his most misanthropic and implicitly anti-American. (Right after the war, too. That's gratitude for you!) Three: The minor characters are so underwritten that we don't know why they're there--nor, seemingly, do they. A morose Russian complains of a hangover and skitters off to the sidelines; a blustery businessman harrumphs and exits; one woman spends the entire evening at the card table. The overarching flaw--and it's hard to imagine a master like Sir Noël making such an obvious dramaturgical faux pas--is that when a protagonist's patience is tried by the triteness/bitchiness/drunkenness/self-pity/stupidity/etc. of a parade of unsympathetic characters, the audience's tolerance is likely to wear thin, too.

Not that Coward doesn't toss off a good line here and there. With its nice, late-'40s ambience, the play includes some telling historical references and some unforced name dropping. (The guests are appalled when Evan fails to recognize the names Rodgers, Hammerstein, and DeMille.) A few non sequiturs have the intended zing: "You must meet my mother; she's a disaster," or "You remind me of someone I loved very much; he had sinus trouble." And when one sycophant says of another, "Oh, she's crazy about you; she's crazy about all writers," Evan's classic-Coward reply is: "That rather vitiates the compliment, then, doesn't it?" There's also some playful sniping at Hollywood, as when the birdbrained actor boasts of just having wrapped The Loves of Cardinal Richilieu for Paramount.

But Coward, who usually brought more human truth and insight to his comedies than he is given credit for, seems to be marking time here. He hasn't much to say about these people other than that they have excess time, money, and liquor on their hands. Hamptonites are bores and boors; what else is new? Compared to, say, Private Lives--currently on Broadway in an exemplary revival--Long Island Sound feels like a writing exercise.

Simon Jones, in the lead, is an expert farceur with a special gift for physical comedy, and watching him unravel from unfailingly polite gentleman to cornered animal is a joy. Most of the rest of the large cast, though, are directed by Scott Alan Evans to be shrill and one-dimensional...and so, to borrow a phrase this play overuses, they shall remain nameless. For what it's worth, Julie Halston coaxes some hard-earned laughs when she turns up in the superior second act as a vain, self-absorbed actress (in this particular universe, there could be no other kind) and Greg McFadden as a nasty, young playwright creates a viable character with the barest of resources.

Like the smaller-scale Mint Theater Company, TACT specializes in producing older, lesser-known plays of merit. It's a noble pursuit and often a rewarding one: TACT's recent staged reading of Shaw's Widowers' Houses, about urban development and real-estate skullduggery, had bite and relevance. The company has done less of a favor to Coward, who once wrote "I've been to a marvelous party." This wasn't it.

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