“Brief Encounter” on Broadway

England. 1938. A railway station. A gust of wind. A speck of grit flies into a woman’s eye. These are the chain of events which instigate a genuine connection between two people, who happen to be married to others. This love is unexpected and they embark on a passionate, if intensely guarded affair, meeting every Thursday in the cafe where they met. This comes from the pen of Noel Coward, first as the one act play Still Life, part of the ten play cycle Life at 8:30 and later as the Oscar nominated classic Brief Encounter directed by David Lean. It’s an overwhelming exercise in restraint, no matter the incarnation.

This new stage incarnation of Brief Encounter now onstage at Studio 54 is, in short, an Anglophile’s dream. English vernacular, customs, emotional repression, the confines of station and class are all displayed onstage in ways both sublime and surreal. The heart of the story is this pained affair between the couple. Still waters run deep, and director Emma Rice has dipped into a bag of theatrical tricks to bring this story of restraint to unexpected and fanciful heights, finding ways of expressing the passion deep beneath the surface. The production, conceived and written by Rice (combining elements from both Still Life and Brief Encounter) originated at Kneehigh Theatre in Leeds, England and enjoyed success in the West End, St Ann’s Warehouse and the Guthrie before arriving on Broadway, with much of its cast intact.

One of the most impressive elements of Rice’s direction is the absolute sincerity given to the central relationship. Melodramatic material, especially from this bygone era, can easily be seen and played as camp or arch, but the characters are given great humanity by Tristan Sturrock and Hannah Yelland. Instead of just putting Brief Encounter onstage, this work expands much of story with amusing meta-theatrics, clever projections and some other surprises which I won’t spoil here. In essence, it becomes part musical, part 39 Steps and part devastating. Contrasting comic relief is supplied by the stellar supporting cast, who play various roles as well as instruments in the onstage band. Annette McLaughlin is a production highlight as Myrtle, the cafe proprietress. Tall, lithe and funny, the production gives her the opportunity to show that there is practically nothing she can’t do. Dorothy Atkinson scores big laughs as her assistant Myrtle. Props also to ensemble member Damon Daunno, who sings much of the show’s music before, during and after the show.

One of the most important elements, aside from the projections, is the use of Noel Coward’s songs to underscore and heighten particular moments throughout. I was jarred by a couple of anachronistic moments; the song sung in 50s rock and roll style and a reference to Marlon Brando don’t sit well with something set in 1938. But overall, the result adds to the show’s charm. The stage show wisely reprises Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2, used to popular effect in the 1945 film. While we’re on the subject, will someone please record a cast album? This is one play with music I would love to listen to.

I have one considerable reservation regarding the venue: the show should be in a smaller house. If you’re in the orchestra yes, I can see how one can get easily immersed. However, up in the mezzanine there was no audience interaction, no decor, no cucumber sandwiches; absolutely nothing to bring us into the atmosphere of the play. We couldn’t hear the band singing in the aisles pre-show, which seems to be a big part of the experience if you’re seated below. We saw them going from section to section, but no matter how hard we strained we couldn’t hear them until the show was about to start. (And I would just shave about five minutes from the running time, but that’s another minor quibble).

However, once the show gets started, it’s hard not to get swept away. And if you’re an old Anglophile like myself, you’ll find yourself quite taken. One last thing – when the play is over, head to the orchestra section bar. The cast heads to the back of the house for a post-show performance and I think you’ll want to stick around. (And the leggy McLaughlin is also on hand to serve sandwiches). The show is presented by Roundabout as a limited engagement, currently scheduled to close December 5.

John Wayne loved Noel Coward?

Dick Cavett in today’s NY Times recalls a conversation with John Wayne on the set of The Shootist, the Duke’s final film in which the rugged star of war films and westerns talks about his love of Noel Coward’s work:

Wayne: Wasn’t he great?

Me (Cavett): Who?

Wayne: Coward.

Me [startled, realizing now that the tune was Noel Coward’s “Someday I’ll Find You”]: Yes.

Wayne: I’ve always loved his stuff. Remember the scene in “Private Lives” when they realize they still love each other?

Me: Yes, and did you know there’s a recording of Coward and Gertrude Lawrence doing that scene?

Wayne: Gee, I gotta get that. I guess I’ve read most of his plays.

Me [still not convinced there isn’t a ventriloquist in the room]: I’ll send you the record.

Wayne: Well, thank ya. I like the line [he switched to quite passable upper-class British], “You’re looking very lovely you know, in this damned moonlight.”

Me: I did a show with Coward and, as he introduced them, “My dearest friends, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.”

Wayne: I sure would love to have seen them in “Design for Living.” [Mentally I reach again for the smelling salts.] And, damn, I’d love to see that show of yours.

Me: I’ll see that you do. [Jesus! Did I? Oh, I hope so.]

Wayne: That’d be awful nice of ya.

Me: Did you ever think of doing one of his plays?

Wayne: Yeah, but it never got past the thought stage. I guess they figured that maybe spurs and “Blithe Spirit” wouldn’t go together. Can’t you see the critics? “Wayne should go back to killing Indians, not Noel Coward.”

High Spirits at "Blithe Spirit"

What can I possibly say about the opening night of Blithe Spirit? I’ve been to quite a few opening nights in the past couple of years, but none recalled the glamour of the Golden Age of Broadway quite like this one. Everywhere we looked, there were stars dolled up to the nines in their tuxes and evening gowns. Then to witness the sparkling champagne revival of Noel Coward’s classic play on top of it? It doesn’t get much better than that.

The evening got started as it often does at Angus for our customary opening night toast and chatter. We soon realized that we were surrounded by first nighters as we started seeing bow ties and cummerbunds wherever we looked. The red carpet was mobbed with celebrities and curious onlookers at the Shubert Theatre. The Shubert flagship had long been resident house of the recently closed Spamalot and housing its first straight play since the 1975 revival of The Constant Wife with Ingrid Bergman. After taking in some of the scenery in and around the lobby, we trekked up to the balcony where we found ourselves dispersed among the crowds. The woman to my left was clearly a regular theatregoer who was attending her very first opening night (and I instructed her to visit the lobby at intermission so as to take in the stars).

The play is a beautiful throwback to the parlor comedies of the 1930s and 40s, with enough wit and class in the staging and design that even the usually snippy Coward couldn’t help but approve. (Snippy you say? Read his diaries and compilation of letters. They’re incredibly opinionated, bitchy and often always hilarious). Christine Ebersole, Rupert Everett, Jayne Atkinson and the irrepressible Angela Lansbury star in this first-rate revival of one of Coward’s most amusing and enduring comedies. Ebersole is a bit out of her element as Elvira and has to work harder than the rest, but nevertheless turns in a fun performance as the troublemaking solipcist of a dead wife. Everett could play a role like Charles in his sleep, and in his Broadway debut as the acerbic, put-upon Charles; a game straight man to the three women at the center of the play. Atkinson is comic marvel as the living wife, Ruth, who on page is a considerable wet-blanket, turning her into the more impressionable of the wives. Susan Louise O’Connor, also making her Main Stem bow, takes the small role of Edith and turns it into a physical comedy highlight (her business involving the serving tray and the chair is quite memorable). Simon Jones and Deborah Rush add some color to the listless roles of the skeptic doctor and his awkwardly verbose wife.

However, the evening belongs to Angela Lansbury as the eccentric medium Madame Arcati. Lansbury has some hefty shoes to fill. The role was created in London and onscreen by Margaret Rutherford (best known for essaying Miss Marple in a series of 1960s films and an Oscar winner for a scene-stealing performance in The VIPs), Mildred Natwick in the original Broadway production as well as a 1950s television version and Geraldine Page in the 1987 revival. Bea Lillie had her final stage triumph starring as Arcati in High Spirits, the 1964 musical adaptation of the play.

When Lansbury made her first entrance she received lengthy applause from an audience grateful at seeing an icon on her latest icon, a hand completely deserved. Decked out in delightfully garish garb with a red wig knotted in double braids, Lansbury delivers a fresh performance that ranks with the best of them. Watching her command of the stage in a physical role such as this is nothing short of a marvel. She’s lean, she’s lithe and delightfully blithe (to borrow from Timothy Gray and Hugh Martin) in all facets of her performance, with enough energy to light up Times Square. Her look, her voice, her delivery, her timing (that delicious Bette Davis glare she gives Deborah Rush!) are all beyond compare. However, the highlight of her performance could very well be the bizarre interpretive dance Arcati does to Irving Berlin’s standard “Always.” It’s the stuff of theatrical legend, I look forward to repeat visits and I can’t wait to see her win a fifth Tony this June.

After the opening, we stargazed as the glamorous throng made it’s way across the street for the opening night party. Sarah asked Donna Murphy, looking like a Grecian goddess, when she was going to be back on Broadway. And when Elizabeth Ashley left Sardi’s and was getting into her car, we decided to give her a big round of applause because, well, she’s Elizabeth Ashley. She shouted to us “But I wasn’t in the play!” to which we replied “We know!” and just continued cheering. The evening reached it’s climax as our gathering in front of the Shubert lasted longer than the official party across the street, looking at our stars get into their cars and head home for the night. Before the night was over, we were reviving the revival complete with sock puppets. A night for the ages and one to remember.

Before I go… here’s an idea that I’ve been very vocal about: for the inevitable Actor’s Fund benefit performance present a performance of High Spirits in concert style staging at the Shubert. You’ve got two musical theatre divas reigning supreme in the choice leads. From the business they do onstage in the play, it’s clear that Atkinson and Everett have at least a passing sense of musicality and voice. Besides, who wouldn’t love to hear a full orchestra knock that sensational overture out of the ballpark? Or have Angela Lansbury crooning a love song to her ouija board? Or have Christine Ebersole fly around faster than sound? I’d be there. Just a thought… In the meanwhile, get your tickets to Blithe Spirit!!