BWW Reviews: North Coast Rep Falls for 'Angels'

Lucy and Ethel. Laverne and Shirley. Mary and Rhoda. Rachel and Monica. Betty and Wilma.

Female duos are the stuff of theatrical comedy. In his dizzying 1920s revel Fallen Angels, the brilliant writer's hand of Sir Noël Peirce Coward, created his own unique pre-sitcom version of this paradigm, as his Jane and Julia trip their comedic light fantastic on the stage. To get away with portraying what London and New York audiences in the twenties surely considered shocking behavior for two such "respectable" women on a stage takes a form of playwriting genius only Coward possessed.

Not only did the chain-smoking, flamboyant playwright, composer, director, screenwriter, actor and singer embody twentieth century Britishness with his carefully crafted particular sense of style and poise - his practice of wearing colored turtle-necked jerseys initiated a fashion statement that lasts to this day - his versatility also reached into almost every facet of cultural life: the self-professed "Jack of all trades, master of none" once said that great opera diva Maria Callas was "responsible for more music, art, and humanity than any other person in the twentieth century." And his ego was legendary. Of theatre co-star Ivor Novello, Coward said, "The two most beautiful things in the world are Ivor's profile and my mind." But of Noël Coward, Lord Mountbatten put it best: "None of the great figures of the English theatre has been more versatile than he."

It takes a village of crafty actors to keep up with the laugh-a-minute brilliance written into the frothy yet brilliantly comical material of Fallen Angels, and it is up to the female protagonists to carry the action: "Two wretchedly happy married women" with "exceedingly nice husbands" to whom they have treated the "requisite amount of passion and adoration." Both must portray their delicious anticipation of a tryst with their past lover, Maurice - who as it turns out has trysted with both of them - while displaying a panoply of conflicting emotions within themselves and with each other.

The evening's two young female stars proved up to that task, and the rest of North Coast Rep's talented players rose to the occasion with true Cowardian aplomb. Act One got off to a bit of a slow start, but Act Two came off with brilliance and moments of comic genius.

As Julia Sterroll, Joanna Strapp made a spectacular NC Rep debut. A graduate of the prestigious Carnegie Mellon School of Drama and a veteran of equally notable theatres across the US, her performance gave proof of her impressive background. She nimbly managed to tiptoe through an amorous minefield, disavowing passion to her husband while clearly and eagerly awaiting her lover, and showed an impressive ability to vary her repertoire of emotions without seeming superficial.

Summer Spiro, also in her NC Rep debut, portrayed Strapp's partner-in-crime Jane Banbury with style and ease. Spiro's madcap ravings, gravity-defying pratfalls and slapstick maneuverings evoked the spirit of Lucy Ricardo on a really good drug trip: unmistakably insane but always entertaining, and increasingly virtuosic as the evening tripped on.

Friends since childhood, in their rivalry over Maurice the women stoop to shameless quips, cunning repartee, and inevitably, invective: Julia: "It seems so unfair that men should have the monopoly of wild oats." Jane: "They haven't - but it's our duty to make them think they have" (This is perhaps the idée centrale of the piece.) "We're not really in love with our husbands anymore," one declares." "We're both ripe for a lapse." "No, it's a relapse!") They continue their banter as the difference between loving someone and being "in love" comes to light. Jealousy starts to surface when Julia sings Maurice's love song. Jane responds resentfully. "He used to sing that song to me." In Falstaffian fashion, Maurice sends each of them a postcard evoking their respective past liaisons. Jane wants to flee from London - until Julia calls it cowardice. At which point both insist on staying to face the "beast" - their actual lover, or more likely their subliminal desire to be unfaithful to their spouses.

As their appropriately lackluster husbands, Thomas Stephen Miller, in his NC Rep debut as Julia's husband Fred Sterroll, and Jason Maddy as Jane's spouse Willie Banbury, made the most of Coward's characteristically dry-as-a-bone dialogue with deadpan expressions and appropriately aristocratic outrage.

Miller deftly spouts the un-self consciously witty, almost purposefully absent-minded dialogue, showing himself all too willing to yield to his wife's orders. They've only been married five years, but you'd think it was twenty. He contentedly sips coffee as Julia admits to their comfortable lack of passion, having "reached a remarkable sublime plane of affection and good comradeship, far above... just ordinary 'being in love.'" All of this sets the stage for her possible guilt-ridden assignation.

Maddy and Spiro spar in a similar fashion. A bit more vigorous in his condemnation of his wife's exploits than Miller, Maddy still managed to arouse sympathy for his wounded puppy reactions to her purported infidelity.

Jackie Ritz, seen last season in NC Rep's Man with a Load of Mischief, made the most of the melodramatic exaggeration required of her role as the acerbic, all-too sophisticated and more than annoying maid Saunders. Her subtle maneuvers were wondrously choreographed for maximum disbelief: correcting Strapp's piano notes with backhanded egotism; spouting French romantic verse in song; ignoring the doorbell while playing piano and singing. "Her balls and irons" repartee with Miller was hilarious, and skillfully done.

Fans of Richard Baird's rendering of over-the-top character Frank in last season's School for Lies were delighted to see him return in the role of would-be seducer Maurice Duclos. "It gives me a fearful sort of illegitimate thrill even to look at his name," says Jane of the "one grand passion" in their lives, whose French is so lovely as to make up for his lack in English. Julia is unable to resist wondering if he has changed. Jane: "That type never does." Julia: "It's almost his profession." Baird's brief but pivotal appearance confirms their postulating. He commands attention even when the characters around him vie for it with a vengeance.

Rosina Reynolds once again proved her versatility to NC Rep audiences. She gave a riveting performance, acting in last season's Mandate Memories (/san-diego/article/BWW-Reviews-Tea-Meets-Sympathy-Flavored-with-Wit-in-MANDATE-MEMORIES-20140417); her masterful direction for Fallen Angels bore witness to her expertise in British repertoire. Having starred in a former production of this Coward comedy, she had the experience and perspective to direct the play to great effect, skillfully playing up the conflict and comedic elements without overplaying. Her wise decision to cast young rather than middle-aged women in the two lead roles paid off in the lighthearted atmosphere created by Strapp and Spiro's youthful exuberance.

Marty Burnett continues to create inventive sets that reflect the atmosphere of each particular play with beauty and deftness. This design was no exception: cushy settees, pink-and-white striped walls and properly placed photographs (was that a young Noël coward pictured in the oval frame?) were placed "just so," leaving enough room for the baby grand, which turned out to be pivotal to the plot. Matt Novotny lit the scene with a rosy glow, as if evoking the saccharine-sweet façade that hides the true underside of the protagonists' youthful, shortsighted attitudes toward life.

Having impressed audiences with her alluring designs for Romance Romance, Mandate Memories and The School For Lies, Alina Bokovikova has again proved her exquisite taste and expertise in designing for period productions. The young women's stunning Act Two 1920s flapper costumes were especially evocative.

In a fashion reminiscent of Mozart and Da Ponte's glorious third operatic collaboration, Cosi Fan Tutte, Coward plays both married couples brilliantly with and against each other, and continues the parallels with the shrewdly savvy maid and a sanguine sixth character in search of... well, causing trouble.

In the end the truth will out: sex wrecks everything. "It's a beastly, rotten thing," says Julia.

Thank heaven for beastly, rotten things. And for Noël Coward's incomparable wit.

Photo credits: North Coast Rep

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