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'A Song at Twilight' shines in its Westport Playhouse engagement

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'A Song at Twilight' at the Westport Country Playhouse

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What a difference a few months and a change of venue makes.

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Welcoming the opportunity to revisit Mark Lamos’ production of Noel Coward’s “A Song at Twilight” which just reopened at the Westport Country Playhouse following a run earlier this year at Hartford Stage, I was curious to see how the play would work in a smaller theater and with a cast that now had been playing their parts for an extended period of time.

My initial reaction upon seeing the Hartford Stage production back in January was that Lamos’ production felt too cavernous and thus distanced the audience from what should have been an intimate experience. “A Song at Twilight” is essentially a three-character play, with a number of sequences being one-on-one confrontations that cut to the quick of the characters’ personalities. Some of that was genuinely missed in the Hartford production. At the same time, it seemed that leading actor Brian Murray went up on his lines several times, although reports from friends who attended later in the run indicated that something similar happened when they saw the show, which caused me to question whether or not that was more than just coincidence. What would I find when I visited Westport?

What I encountered was a well-thought-out, divinely cast production that actually elevates “A Song at Twilight” from being considered one of Coward’s good but only mediocre plays. It’s clear that director Lamos, who is also the Artistic Director of the Westport Country Playhouse, has continued working with his cast since the Hartford run. The evening runs much smoother and with a snap that never allows the play to drag. The cast members have grown further in their roles, often in subtle yet more satisfactory, ways. In addition, being able to take a second look at the work, particularly in the company of a rapt audience, allowed certain carefully planned touches to stand out.

Alexander Dodge’s set fits much more comfortably into the confines of the Westport proscenium and doesn’t seem so far removed from the audience. The abstract hint of the Alps along the back wall of the set doesn’t seem as overwhelming but rather serves as a subtle visual device to ground the set in a specific location. The pieces of furniture found inside the Swiss hotel room circa 1965 seem a bit more of a single unit, including the statue of the reclining woman that at one point serves as a hat rack. There seems to be just a tad more movement on that set by the actors, not a lot, but it allows the production to make a little more use of the set.

Coward’s plot is fairly straightforward but suspenseful in its own way. An aging writer, Sir Hugo Lattimore, has agreed to meet a former lover from many years ago, the renown actress Carlotta Gray, at her request. Sir Hugo and his current wife of 20-some years, the Teutonically efficient Hilde, joust a little imaging what Carlotta could possibly want. When the still elegant Carlotta arrives, Hilde goes off to visit a friend, while Sir Hugo is confronted with Carlotta’s request to publish their love letters in her upcoming autobiography. As a sort of leverage, she reveals that she also has Sir Hugo’s letters to the one true love of his life, a man named Perry Sheldon, who the closeted Hugo coldly shut out of his life through the man’s last lingering illness.

The wonderful character actor Brian Murray hits all the right notes as the stuffy, sarcastic literary lion whose scowls and wide-eyed double takes are priceless. His still imperious air is evidenced particularly at one startling moment when seemingly cornered he gives out a loud, commanding, authoritative yell that frightens not only Carlotta, with whom he is on stage at the time, but the audience as well. Here is a man who still is capable of exhibiting the pride and privilege that created his reputation. At several points throughout the evening, Sir Hugo stumbles over names and dates, and that seems to be what Murray was trying to convey in Hartford, that Sir Hugo’s memory is slowing, especially at times when his character is being exasperated by the questioning of another character.

The two actresses playing the women in Sir Hugo’s circle seem more comfortable and confident in their roles, adding some depth to their already delineated characterizations. Gordana Rashovich remains ravishing as Carlotta, but she seems less strident here, allowing Carlotta welcome moments of empathy, but simultaneously filling her anger with justifiable disdain. Rashovich allows Carlotta to also reveal a vulnerability the character clearly tries to deny when she reveals pent-up feelings of betrayal and misuse that she has carried around for years and which she brazenly suspects Hilde of sharing. In this production, it’s a game-changing moment that forces the audience to re-evaluate what we have felt about Carlotta and look at her with different eyes.

Mia Dillion seems to have brought out a slightly sterner side to Hilde, which she uses to parry the demands and frustrations that Sir Hugo sends her way. It seems clearer that these are the tools she has developed over the years first as Sir Hugo’s secretary, as a replacement to the fired Perry, and subsequently as Lady Lattimore. She evinces mire wariness than warmth toward the visiting Carlotta and exhibits a straightforward eagerness to correct the actress’s misconceptions about the nature of the married couple’s relationship. I also felt that the warmth she extends to her husband, especially in her final scenes, is much more tempered with a recognition of reality that adds to Hilde’s strength of character.

Nicholas Carriere remains the epitome of efficiency and propriety as the waiter, Pierre, whose character has been given permission to at least smile at some of the bon mots being cascaded around the stage, particularly regarding Carlotta’s occasional references to his virility.

Interestingly, costume designer Fabio Toblini has dressed the three major characters in various shades of green at key points in the play. Carlotta enters in a shimmering green dress glinted with touches of gold that shows off the curvature of her body, while Hilde is dressed in a green plaid skirt, white sweater and plaid hat (that makes her look like William Tell, according to Sir Hugo), showing Hilde’s preference for comfort and simplicity, while providing a contrast between both female characters. Sir Hugo’s dinner jacket is a deep, dark green that bespeaks an elegance that he has carefully chosen to impress his visitor.

These earth tone costumes contrast rather sharply with the lighter blue tones of the Alp-suggestive backdrop creating a small tug of visual conflict that remains unresolved until the very end when the background is bathed in a gold-green that works its way along the walls of the set towards the front of stage, in Matthew Richards’ superb lighting design, providing a visual resolution to Sir Hugo’s heartbreaking reminiscence as he recalls a fleeting yet meaningful moment from his long-ago relationship with Perry, captured by two young actors meant to be naked behind a scrim at the back of the stage.

On second viewing, “A Song at Twilight” packs its punch more efficiently and emotionally, allowing more details of the women’s characters to be highlighted and providing the audience with glimpses of the lion at the peak of his powers, while still allowing the tragedy and toll of the man’s secretiveness and denial to be felt.

“A Song At Twilight” plays at the Westport Country Playhouse through May 17. For information and tickets, call the theater’s box office at 203.227.4177 or visit the theater’s website at www.westportplayhouse.org.

To keep up with theatrical activities in Connecticut and western Massachusetts, consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner or the Springfield Art Examiner by clicking on the “Subscribe” button found at the top of this article near the byline. A copy of each new article will be sent directly to your inbox.

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