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A CurtainUp Review
Waiting In The Wings

Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris
(Photo: Henry Grossman )
Noël Coward was not only gifted but generous. He apportioned his witty one liners fairly among the characters in his plays. In Waiting In the Wings. he also provided roles for not one but nine actresses old enough to collect social security.

With Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris heading a stellar supporting cast and looking magnificent enough to make one almost welcome the "sunset" years, this revival celebrates these golden girls of the stage as well as Coward's centennial. It's a chance for audiences of a certain age to wax nostalgic and for those who were toddlers or not even born in 1960 (when Waiting in the Wings played in London) to see an ensemble of old pros give first-rate performances.

Coward, who played opposite Lauren Bacall in a TV version of Blithe Spirit and tried to get Rosemary Harris for a New York production of his Nude With Violin, must surely be dancing in the great beyond to see both of them in this revival of a play set in a retirement home for indigent stage divas. If Bacall remains more Bacall than Bainbridge there is the compensating glamour she retains even at seventy-five. Coward, the savvy showman who knew all about the cachet of being a living legend, would applaud her being cast as a British actress who can't remember her lines or maintain her life style.

Good as they are the Wings residents can't transform Waiting In the Wings into the first-rate play it never was (the English production was a flop which persuaded Coward's long-time companion and biographer Graham Payn to retire from the stage). The changes accredited in the program as "Revisited by Jeremy Sams" also don't strengthen a plot which at times feels like an afterword to Stage Door. Not having seen the original but with a picture in Payn's biography in front of me (p.162 of the paperback linked below), much of this "revisiting" seems to be a matter of keeping the Grim Reaper in the wings rather than onstage. That picture shows the Wings residents at the festive New Year's party gathered around after one of them (Deidre O'Malley) has spoken her last lines. Helena Carroll is such an irrepressibly comic gloom and doomer, that you can't blame Mr. Sams from not wanting do kill her off. The person whose death now disrupts the party is that of the unseen oldest resident. It's announced by her devoted suitor (touchingly played by Barnard Hughes) and another dead resident is carried past the parlor and out the front door when the play opens.

Mr. Sams' determination to keep death hidden in the wings no more removes the play's more serious aspects than it adds dramatic heft to what is essentially a story without much of a story line. That story line, such as it is, revolves around a long-standing feud between the resident Queen Bee May Davenport (played with wonderful grandeur and as much emotional range as the character is allows by Rosemary Harris) and a new Wings resident, Lotta Bainbridge (Lauren Bacall). I'm not being a spoiler when I tell you that the feud started over a man and that it is eventually laid to rest. The rest of the "story line" consists of a few minor tempests to upset the ladies' tea:

  • Perry Lascoe (played with affable charm by Simon Jones), arranges for a London Times journalist (Crista Moore) to do a profile on the ladies which will include a plea for funding for a much needed solarium. This causes some distress and almost causes Perry to lose his job but, like the already mentioned feud, resolves itself quite predictably. Ms. Moore adds a nice youthful touch though her black leather outfit seems more suited to a sci-fi TV show than this old-fashioned setting on Broadway, the one misstep in Alvin Colt's otherwise on the mark costumes. The article also prompts an Act II visit by the son (Anthony Cummings) from whom Carlotta has been long estranged. It's another predictable scene though Bacall's finest.

  • The most unsettling tempest is a fire set by one of the residents, Sarita Myrtle (Helen Stenborg) who has retreated entirely into her past. Sarita is sad but, as portrayed by Ms. Stanborg, also funny. While no major harm is done, this event does call for Sarita's last scene -- her exit from the Wings to a new home that's unlikely to be as pleasant.

If you lower your expectations and accept the play for what it is, you can relax and enjoy watching these actors make the most of their rather sketchy characters and deliver such Coward bon mots as Bacall's "I come in peace -- I'm bristling with olive branches". Rosemary Murphy, never without the once hi fashion turban, had too many sharp comments for me to write down. Elizabeth Wilson and Patricia Connolly are truly memorable, one as a sweetly sympathetic peacemaker, the other always ready with her scrapbook and a tune on the piano.

To complete the tally of the show's assets Dana Ivey as the erstwhile army colonel (in the entertainment division, naturally) who now runs the Wings with the look of the martinet but a heart of gold. Director Michael Langham has also assembled a first rate design team. Besides the usual suspects (set, costumes, lighting and sound), Mitch Ely's hair and wig design deserves special praise. Now if Mr. Langham could only find a play that's got enough oomph for a reprise by this cast!

My Life With Noël Coward by Graham Payn with Barry Day. In addition to the above mentioned photo of the 1960 production of Waiting In The Wings there's one from 1955 of Coward and Bacall (p. 368)
Our review of the above book ).
If Love Were All a mini musical, the first out the door of the various Coward Centennial tributes
Noel Coward: A Biography by Philip Hoare--the latest of the many Coward biographies with much detail about Coward's conflicts as a gay man in a homophobic milieu. Also available as a paperback 
High Spirits, adaptation of Coward's most performed play, Blithe Spirits (Berkshire Theatre Festival)

by Noel Coward
"Revisited by" Jeremy Sams
Directed by Michael Langham

Starring: Lauren Bacall, Rosemary Harris
With: Victoria Boothby, Amelia Campbell, Helena Carrol, Patricia Conolly, Anthony Cummings, Bette Henritze, Barnard Hughes, Dana Ivey, Simon Jones, Sybil Lines Crista Moore, Rosemary Murphy, Helen Stenborg, Elizabeth Wilson
Set Design: Ray Klausen
Lighting Design: Ken Billington
Costume Design: Alvin Colt
Sound Design: Peter Fitzgerald
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, inclding one 10-minute intermission

Walter Kerr, 219 W. 48th St., (Broadway/8th Av), 239-6200
Performances from 12/03/99; opening 12/19/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 12/21/99 performance

©Copyright 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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