"This is a critical moment in our matrimonial careers."
Noel Coward wrote his light marital comedy "Fallen Angels" in 1925, a year that also saw his plays "Hay Fever," and "Easy Virtue," as well as the musical "On With the Dance." He was starring in his own play "The Vortex" which had opened the year before. "Fallen Angels" received poor notices, even with Edna Best and Tallulah Bankhead playing the two title characters. Bankhead was a last minute replacement with only two days to learn the role and get up in the part.
On stage at the Dorset Theatre Festival history is almost repeating itself. An actor named Ronan Babbitt has just played his first performance as Willie Banbury, husband of the character played by Tallulah originally, after only two days of rehearsals. Like his stage wifeís ancestor, he did brilliantly in the role.
This play has a slight story. Two women, best friends, discover that a man they both once had an affair with seven years earlier has just come to London and wants to see them. As their husbands are on an overnight golf holiday, they plan to casually meet their former swain and while waiting for him to show up, they get drunk, reveal some old animosities and have a perfectly wonderful cat fight. All is resolved the following morning and a quartet of friends has become a quintet of wary folks.
With the help of an endearing maid named Saunders, played here by Melissa Hurst in an informal and casual manner that works wonderfully, the two wives and their husbands attempt to resolve their differences while the Frenchman, Maurice, played to the gallic hilt by Gene Gillette, manipulates his way back into the lives of his two best girlfriends.
It takes this company of young, invigorated American actors only 92 minutes to play out the 24 hours of this piece. There is no intermission between the any of the three acts and the show doesnít seem to suffer for it. The troupe manages their accents with aplomb, never faltering or altering them. Even drunk the two women manage to control their vocal projection, their Jane and Julia keeping close to the mark in their portrayal of long-suffering wives from the upper-middle classes.
Amy Lynn Stewart is lovely as Julia, poised and posed in classic 1920s fashion. She is almost perfect, although every now and then there is something of the cross-dresser about her gestures or stance. Still, the resulting character she creates is awesome, filled with understanding and a cooperative nature. She takes and holds the stage well and makes us really like her Julia.
Jeanine Serralles has a slightly harder time with Jane, the flibbertigibbet friend who seems to always be on the run. Her second act drunk scene is a highwater mark for comedy and she moves from one state to another, emotionally and physically, with wit and charm and even her hostility in this situation she finds herself in, is winningly portrayed by Serralles.
Together alone, for the most part, in Act Two, these two actresses give us every possible stage of friendship from uneasiness to antagonism to love and trust and even to ugly disdain. As their collaborative reunion with their former lover turns into a drunken brawl they become funnier and sillier and even more loveable than they were before. And watching them play through the third actís twists and turns is hilarious.
Their husbands are portrayed by (in the same order) Tony Hogopian and Ronan Babbitt. Both are very good actors. Their reactions are so unforced they become real and that makes the men terrific foils for their wives. Hogopian is more polished in his role, but even his role has a certain degree of polish in it. Babbitt, as noted, performed perfectly and was totally believable in the part.
As the maid, Saunders, Hurst does just fine, as noted. It is the mysterious Maurice who holds our attention in the latter part of Act Three. Played by Gillette, he comes across from the first as smooth and oily and tricky and someone who will manipulate this situation to his own advantage. Gillette plays consistently on this and with the witty Coward dialogue to toss around, he does as well as his fellow players do in their longer, more difficult roles.
Jacqueline Firkins has designed some of the cutest 1925 clothes Iíve ever seen, particularly Janeís second act gown. Ryan Palmer has restored a sense of summer stock to the set for this show and on the stage of the Dorset Playhouse that is a wonderful thing. There was once a look that all audience expected. This is it. Itís not something we see often any more, but here it is and more power to him for exercising his right to make the play fit the theater.
Suzanne Agins has pulled this production together without flaws. She has delivered delicious Coward on a summer stock platter with young hopefuls playing bigger and better than they knew they could. It looked like the twenties, sounded like the twenties and for 90 minutes it felt like the twenties. You canít ask for more than that while "wallowing in a quagmire" (see the show and get the reference).
Fallen Angels plays through July 25 at the Dorset Theatre Festival located at 104 Cheney Road in Dorset, Vermont. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-867-5777.