Friday, June 12, 2015

"Fallen Angels"

Fallen Angels
Noel Coward

Imagine in 1925 a twenty-four-old aspiring playwright writing a riotous comedy about two married women plotting together to have a weekend fling with a visiting Frenchman while their husbands are off on a golf holiday!  Ninety years later, such a set-up seems a bit ho-hum; but at a time when women had just won the right to vote and were still seen as existing mostly to please their husbands’ whims and to be domestic goddesses, the young Noel Coward must have been daring to bring Fallen Angels to the stage so early in his career.  As produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, this rarely revived gem is furiously funny and a must-see not so much because of the playwright’s somewhat shallow, outdated plotline but because of a stellar cast, inspired direction (Artistic Director Robert Kelley), and extremely high production values in set and costumes.

The play’s set up in Act One is as follows:  Two couples that are best friends have serendipitously had the same conversation as the husbands are about to take off together for a weekend of golf, leaving the wives to fend for themselves.   Each couple has concluded that after all of five years of marital bliss, they are no longer ‘in love,’ but now just ‘love’ each other, which for the men seems perfectly fine.  When Jane comes over to see Julia once the boys have departed, they soon discover that ‘love’ without passion may not be in fact enough and that they are ‘ripe for a lapse’ out of holy wedlock.  This is especially true since a certain Frenchman (Maurice) has sent postcards to both of them, his former flings, that he is arriving in town after a 7-year absence from their now-married lives.  Hilariously, they each go hot and cold on the idea of a weekend trip into Elysian’s fields; but the more they remember their brief affairs with Maurice, the more they both decide to welcome him with open arms (vowing never of course to let him come between their bond as friends).

Sarah Overman (Julia) and Rebecca Dines (Jane) tease us in Act One for what becomes a riotous Act Two.  In Roaring 20s, slinky evening wear of high style and bright colors (as designed by the Bay Area queen of costumes, Fumiko Beilefeldt), Julia and Jane titteringly await what they hope will be a doorbell to sexual bliss (at least for one of them).  As they become tired of just coyly chatting, a double martini, a bottle of champagne, and a several-course dinner send each down the path to an increasingly tipsy, then totally drunken state.  Every emotion imaginable is expressed by these two wonderful actresses in ever-increasing exaggeration with limbs flying in all directions.  As conversations full of silly one-liners slur, as the ability to sit or walk straight (or to answer a phone) diminishes, and as just placing a napkin on their laps becomes a heroic act, we in the audience roar in total delight.    However funny these two are while imbibing, they are just as convincingly hilarious the next morning in Act Three when arising totally hung over, to the point my own stomach felt a bit queasy watching them and remembering such awakenings in my past.  Oh, and what about that close sisters-for-life bond these two professed the day before?  Oops!  

But Julia and Jane have not alone in the apartment.  Responding to every ringy-dingy of a hand-held bell is Saunders, Julia’s new maid who threatens to steal the show every time she comes through the swinging door from her off-stage kitchen.  Tory Ross excels as this modern Renaissance woman who displays so matter-of-factly that every thing she can do is better than anything her aristocratic superiors can do (as she casually plays a piano concerto, sings an opera aria, provides golf advice, speaks fluent French, cures in 30 seconds a deadly hang-over -- just to name a few of her skills).

While we only see them briefly in Act One and not again until Act Three, Mark Anderson Phillips and Cassidy Brown as Fred and Willy take relatively small parts and exploit them in every way possible.  Each plays the high-society, rather stilted husband to a ‘t’ in Act One; and each deteriorates into panicked, bubbling idiots in Act Three when he believes his wife has betrayed him.  (Mr. Phillips at one point lets out a multi-octave shriek that is worth the price of admission.) 

But what about the debonair, supposedly Adonis-like Maurice:  Does he ever arrive?  The man who is described by our adoring wanna-again-be-his-lovers as having the biggest smile with the whitest teeth does not disappoint when Aldo Billingslea makes a grand, late-in-the-play entrance as Maurice.  Quickly sizing up the tangled chaos before him of goo-goo-eyed wives and ticked-off, highly suspicious husbands, Mr. Billingselea uses well every minute he has on stage to take command and to set up yet one last intriguing twist to this non-stop two hours of audience laughter and fun.  (And his bow later with Saunders is almost as good as his entrance!)

Not enough can be said in praising this well-directed ensemble who produce cornball wackiness with such flair and finesse.  While I am not sure I need to see Fallen Angels again for the story, I am totally attempted to return to TheatreWorks just to watch this cast once again perform their magic.

Rating: 5 E’s

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley continues it Fallen Angels on the Mountain View Performing Arts Center stage through June 28.

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