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|A CurtainUp Review
By Joe Green
< Noel Coward''s Easy Virtue fits neatly within the author's canon of wit and subversion. A precursor of his better known and much admired Private Lives, Easy Virtue, under the firm hand of Christopher Newton, the Festival's artistic director, is filled with comic invention even though it ends in a quasi-catastrophic breakup. It was written in 1924, the same year that Coward penned his first great comedy, Hay Fever, but has never received the same acclaim. Together, these plays foreshadowed the tension that Coward relished in much of his work -- that the British gentry cannot successfully mix with bohemians of artistic temperament.
Into the upper-middle class comfort of the Whittaker country household comes the worldly Larita (portrayed with sophisticated elegance by veteran Goldie Semple), a trophy wife brought home by the prodigal son John (read with decadent grace by Ben Carlson who has a much better time of it as the romantic lead in She Loves Me). The play lives in a nervous and indolent atmosphere controlled by the disdainful Mrs. Whittaker (Patricia Hamilton) and tolerated by the laconic Colonel Whittaker (David Schurmann). The Whittaker sisters, superficially serious Marion (Kelli Fox) and flighty but destructive teenager Hilda (Fiona Byrne) round out this dysfunctional family whose major interests rest in tennis and lawn parties with Chinese lanterns and fairy lights.
Larita, soon disenchanted with the surface life she has joined, develops an ennui that ultimately drives her back to her life of literature and art. What starts as a comedy of manners turns finally to a critique of British gentry. Only Sarah Hurst, played with vigor and compassion by Glynis Ranney, and Charles Burleigh, equally well portrayed by Patrick Brown, ground the action in Coward's environment of idiosyncratic affectation.
William Schmuck's drawing room allows Newton's fluid direction full play, well supported by Alan Brodie's subtle but effective lighting.
While not one of Coward's best known or loved comedies, Easy Virtue makes for a worthy evening of theatre, especially when paired with some of the other Festival offerings this summer.