If there could be a single word to describe NextStop Theatre Company’s production of Noel Coward’s 1925 comedy, Fallen Angels, it would be symmetry. Emily Lotz’s delightfully realized period set, well-appointed by props designer Alex Wade, features parallel, well-balanced pairs of doors on either side; a single central chandelier with two smaller, evenly-spaced chandeliers on each side of it; two lovely art deco paintings on the back walls, centered by a pair of art deco swans; a piano on one side balanced by an eating table on the other; parallel, round tables with flowers on extreme stage left and right; white pillows on either side of the center three-seat sofa; and even a small vertical tea table on one side of the sofa balanced by a small vertical ashtray on the other.
Director Abigail Fine follows a similar pattern in arranging her stage pictures. Actors – particularly principals Julia (Teresa Spencer) and Jane (Elizabeth Ann Jernigan) – most often sit or stand in parallel, symmetrical positions on stage as they collaborate or bicker. When they move, it is often simply to reversed parallel positions.
The orderliness of the visual elements of the production forms an amusingly ironic contrast to the emotional disarray of most of the characters who, not unusually for Coward’s work, range from frivolous and juvenile (the two female leads) to clueless and dull (their husbands Fred and Willie, played by John Stange and James Finley, respectively), whose most important relationship appears be with golf. The women and men both often operate in pairs, even at show’s end, including one very clever scene change in which a side aisle doubles as a golf course.
The set-up of the action is simple enough. Julia and Jane, dissatisfied with their happy and companionable but passionless marriages, dream of a French lothario, Maurice, with whom each had a brief fling in Italy before meeting their husbands. Maurice may be coming to town, reinvigorating their memories of romantic excitement. For much of the play, Maurice functions as a sort of erotic Godot, extensively discussed but not appearing.
Coward’s plot is merely a trellis on which the vines, flowers, and weeds of his witticisms, episodes of inebriated quarreling, female desires and fantasies, ambivalent friendships, and cynical appreciation of the deceptions behind marriage can grow, intertwine, and tangle. What matters most is the witty and often barbed interchanges, particularly between Julia and Jane, which both actors handle with aplomb, excellent timing, and a fine sense for the subtleties of physical comedy. You expect funny lines and zingers aplenty from Coward, and actors and creative team deliver.
Special mention should be made of Lorraine Magee, who plays Saunders, Julia’s multi-tasking, omnicompetent maid, the one character in the play with a brain. When it comes to golf, music, understanding French, or putting up imperturbably with the vagaries of her employers, Saunders is the go-to woman in the play. If it’s good sense, rather than titillation, one wants to have in a servant, everybody ought to have a maid like Saunders.
With the exception of one late-appearing costume, which appears more 1970s Italian than fashionable 1920s, Moyenda Kulemeka’s costumes are spot on for the period and class of the characters. Her white, glittery, fringed gown for Jane in the second and third scenes was particularly stunning.
Thought to be shockingly immoral in 1925, thus guaranteeing its popularity, Fallen Angels is now one of Coward’s less frequently produced shows. It’s still good for a night of laughs by an audience, which need not be bothered by any serious thoughts during the proceedings. Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.
Running Time: Two hours and ten minutes, including one intermission.