BWW Review: FALLEN ANGELS at NextStop Theatre Company
Noël Coward's charming and witty Fallen Angels, first performed in 1925, had a bit of a sordid beginning. Prominently featuring two women who admit to premarital sex and contemplate adultery, it very nearly didn't make it past the censors. The Lord Chamberlain allowed it - with small edits - considering it an unrealistic, harmless farce. The reviews were horrified by the subject matter; naturally, it became a hit. Surprisingly, NextStop Theatre Company's production, now running through April 7th, is the first time Fallen Angels has been performed in the DC metro area.
The plot is fairly straightforward: socialites Julia Sterroll (Teresa Spencer) and Jane Banbury (Elizabeth Anne Jernigan), both in happy but complacent marriages, learn that their former French fling, Maurice, is visiting London and wants to see them both. Perhaps serendipitously, their unassuming husbands (John Stange and James Finley) have just left on a golf trip. For the first half of its runtime (comprising of Acts I and II), Fallen Angels is genuinely delightful, rightfully belonging to Julia and Jane as they drunkenly entertain multiple potential scenarios, many of them at once: should they run away with Maurice? How about just one of them? Or should they resign themselves to their moth-eaten marriages?
These questions in themselves aren't interesting; watching Spencer and Jernigan plow through the myriad outcomes that await them, living dozens of lives before they ever happen, is the reason to see Fallen Angels. The script is unfairly simple in how it treats Jane and Julia's desires, and more than borderline offensive when Jane and Julia are verbally shamed by their husbands for having dared to lead sexual lives prior to marriage. Still, Jernigan and Spencer, led by Fine, dive far past that, finding complexities willfully ignored by Coward's text. There's a careful, Venn diagram-like balance between Julia's controlled calmness and Jane's stormy anxiety, but neither is ever resigned to their roles for long.
Director Abigail Isaac Fine rightfully relishes the opportunity to stage a classic comedy that leaves the men to the literal margins; Stange and Finley, both giving amiable performances, don't reappear until Act III after the intermission. This is when Fallen Angels shifts gears and becomes a more typical farce, complete with exaggerated misunderstandings that don't really change the status quo. This stretch can never quite capture what makes the first half rise above mere frivolity. That said, there is a undercurrent of truthful melancholy to an opening scene between Spencer and Stange; an early discussion about the difference between loving someone and being in love with them registers quietly in Stange's performance. Finley isn't afforded as much depth, but as discoveries are made in the second half, he becomes the epitome of fragile masculinity and it's a joy to see him unravel. His incredible physicality leads you to believe he could snap in two at any second. It's sort of a pity when he doesn't.
Very special mention must be made of Lorraine Magee as Saunders, the Sterroll servant. With every second of her time onstage, she gives audience members glimpses into a worldly history far more interesting than her role in their trivial lives. Robert Pike makes a late appearance in a role that isn't named in the program, although you'll be able to figure it out long before he enters. Without spoiling things, Pike himself, in more ways than one, plays the climax of Fallen Angels and does so with enough animal magnetism to last several performances.
Fine does an excellent job of guiding the cast in making Coward's dialogue zip along, although some of the more indulgent bits go on for way too long. There's also a lack of cohesion in the accent work that makes more than a few moments hard to catch. Still, this world is whole, and Fine keeps things appropriately rooted with a realistic approach that grounds the comedy. The scenic design by Emily Lotz is filled with gorgeous detail, and the lighting design by James Morrison is simple and effective, with small, dreamlike flourishes occur as Jernigan and Spencer reminisce about their pre-married lives. "Même les Anges," a song prominently featured in the show with lyrics by Coward, is given a lovely composition by sound designer Reid May.
Ultimately, it is the cast that makes Fallen Angels a show worth seeing by finding its characters' rich inner cravings and giving them a soul and a voice. They've dug deeper than Coward's problematic text could anticipate, and in a theatrical landscape where classics are reimagined in a literal infinite number of ways, it's actually refreshing to see a classical approach strive to dig deeper with what's there.
Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Fallen Angels runs through April 7th, 2019 at NextStop Theatre Company, located at 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon, VA, 20170. For tickets, visit NextStop's website.