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A CurtainUp Review
Noel Coward's Suite in 2 Keys
By Elyse Sommer
The exquisitely timed mots Ivey manages to land in between sipping and chewing are pure Coward. The lady who ordered the dinner, an exact replica of the one that preceded Carlotta's and Hugo's first dinner, is Hugo's efficient German wife Hilda, another sparkling performance by Hayley Mills (best known to American audiences as a child screen star).
The play, Coward's last, is not top-drawer Coward but it has enough of his hallmark wit and underlying substance to entertain. Its plot revolves around Carlotta's surprise re-entry into Sir Hugo's life. Their meeting is a cat and mouse game -- he more anxious to be rid of her than to see her, she clearly up to something. Once Hilda departs and the dinner she has ordered from the hotel kitchen arrives, Carlotta's plan is revealed bit by bit (or should I say, bite by bite). It seems she's not quite the silly actress Sir Hugo portrayed her to be in his memoir; in fact, she has landed a contract for her own memoir in which she now wants permission to use his love letters to her. Sir Hugo objects strenuously, stating "I have no intention of playing the horse to your Lady Godiva." But while he may feel Carlotta is using him, it turns out that Carlotta feels it is he who has used her in the past. Her real agenda is justice and honesty rather than self-aggrandizement. Worse still, as she downs the last of her meal, she dishes up her trump card -- a threat to tell the world about Hugo's well-hidden homosexual past. (While Coward himself did not advertise his sexual inclinations, the role model here is Somerset Maugham and the reunion inspired by an incident in the life of Max Beerbohm)
Obviously revelations about homosexuality are hardly newsworthy or shocking today as they were in 1966 when A Song At Twilight was written. Nevertheless, the play holds up much better than the first part of the double bill, Shadows of the Evening. This might be palatable as a 20-minute curtain raiser but at a full hour it is interminably long-winded. Coward himself found it "too sad" and dropped it from what was originally Suite in Three Keys (Shadows of Evening, Come Into the Garden Maude, Songs At Twilight).
A Song at Twilight's sadness stems from the situation that also revolves around a sudden reunion of a man, his wife and mistress. Ivey, this time the devoted mistress in residence, has summoned Mills, the wife she replaced, to help make the man's imminent death easier. They think he doesn't know but, of course, he does, and the trio bravely and together faces the uncertainty ahead (shades of some of the playwright's patriotic and brave World War II film sagas).
Both plays are set in a handsomely appointed Lausanne hotel suite, complete with views of the alps. Both have the same cast. The women in Songs are again topnotch and even Whitehead, who fails to project the debonair acerbity needed to make Sir Hugo more than just a cranky old codger, is fine as the dying George Hilgay. Good as they all are, however, especially the women in their interaction with each other, the actors can't make the occasional spurts of good dialogue dispel the overall tedium.
Director John Tillinger has orchestrated both plays with grace and style. David Loveless's costumes are as stylish as James Noone's set. It's too bad that the producers didn't opt to make a main course of the second and meatier play, which was recently and quite successfully done in London. Instead this Suite is like many concerts is programmed so that the audiences must sit through a Hindemith or Berg, before being allowed to enjoy the Brahms or Beethoven or Mendelsohn.