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Hartford Stages' 'Song at Twilight' details toll of a life lived dishonestly

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'A Song AT Twilight' at Hartford Stage

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Noel Coward’s title for one of his final plays, “A Song at Twilight,” should clearly signal that this work may be a tad more serious than usual and what witty repartee an audience may encounter will be employed in service to something darker.

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Coward himself called it “the most serious play I have ever written,” and Mark Lamos’s new production at Hartford Stage, where he served as Artistic Director in the 1980’s through the early 90’s, takes Coward at his word. Yes, “A Song at Twilight” is filled with some magnificent barbed quips and caustic comments at which Coward excelled, but the musical mood suggested by the title, instead of being gently elegiac, has a tendency to come off more like a dirge.

Unexpectedly, it takes some time for Lamos’s production to spark to life. I suspect some of this is because it fails to capture the intimacy that this play requires. One issue is the need to stage the work in Hartford Stage’s proscenium configuration, which places the action at a further remove from the rising rows of seats that surround the thrust stage configuration. Perhaps a more intimate feeling is obtained if one sits on the seven or eight rows of floor seats directly in front of the stage. However, this staging will accommodate the production’s transfer later this Spring to the Westport Country Playhouse’s proscenium.

In addition, the outstanding Alexander Dodge has designed an elegant but sparse recreation of a luxurious Swiss hotel suite that turns out to be too expansive for the intimate needs of this play. The carefully limited scenic elements, including a credenza or a bookshelf or a desk, often require lengthy walks to make a drink or answer the phone, a situation further exacerbated by a large, abstract but nonetheless distracting backdrop that hints of the surrounding Alps. Rather than pulling the audience into the plot, the set has the opposite effect, diffusing attention and complicating concentration.

Most disappointing, however, was initial lugubriousness of the leading actor, the usually reliable Brian Murray, who at least on the evening that this writer saw the play, seemed hesitant with his lines and somewhat slow in his delivery. There was also some audience restlessness that this writer found distracting, with an atypical amount of getting up and down in the audience and some irritating chatterers who resisted various requests to please quiet down.

That said, however, the play manages to come to genuine and rewarding life in the final third of the 90-minute intermissionless production, as at last all three major characters join together in a revealing round robin that cuts to the core of the issues that Coward was hoping to address. Coward wrote the play in response to the closeted lifestyle of the British novelist W. Somerset Maugham (“Of Human Bondage” and “The Razor’s Edge”) who although famously married to a woman maintained secretive long-term relationships with several of his male secretaries. Here Coward had to be careful, because he also maintained similar sexual relationships with various secretaries, but Coward never hid behind the façade of a marriage and, even though homosexuality was a crime in England, lived somewhat openly. Coward, in this work written after Maugham’s death, wanted to address the toll that such relationships took not only on Maugham but on those around him as well, most particularly his long-suffering former wife as well.

In Coward’s version, the Maugham stand-in, the famous writer Sir Hugo Latymer, is now married to the German woman who once served as his secretary, the stern but caring Hilde, and living in Switzerland. Out of the blue, he receives word that his former mistress of 30 to 40 years ago, the now-famous actress Carlotta Gray, wants to meet him, after not having seen each other for well over 30 years.

It seems that Carlotta is writing her autobiography and wants Sir Hugo’s permission to quote from his letters to her. She rightly suspects that the excessively private writer will not agree, so she has brought leverage of her own: the complete set of letters from Sir Hugo to the “one true love of his life,” one Perry Sherwood, who turned to Carlotta during his final illness after Sir Hugo coldly refused any of Perry’s petitions. As the loyal Hilde wisely leaves the two alone, Sir Hugo and Carlotta’s engage in verbal cat and mouse game filled with accusations, denials and a steady stream of intelligent, funny dialogue. “You’re queer as a coot and have been all your life,” Carlotta exasperatingly shouts at one point, generating one of the biggest laughs of the evening. Eventually Hilde, returning from visiting a lesbian friend, joins the match, at last bringing the play to wonderfully wicked life while revealing a genuine depth of character and warmth in the process.

The wonderful South African actor, Brian Murray, who has essentially been acting in the United States since the late 1960's, plays Sir Hugo in very much the Maugham mode as an older, lumbering author indeed settled into the twilight of his career. Murray reveals a tendency to be tentative with his lines especially in the early going, and at times will mumble or speak under his breath which makes it sometime difficult to appreciate Coward’s wit. He may be trying to be acceptably curmudgeonly, but is has the effect of disengaging him from the action. He doesn’t seem up to the challenge presented by the more vivacious Carlotta, although Murray does call upon his character’s well-developed charm to try to derail Carlotta from her mission. And when he ultimately realizes that Carlotta is dead serious in her threat, let’s just say that very few actors can exhibit shock and exasperation as well as Murray.

Gordana Rashovich, who has done some memorable work at Hartford Stage in the past, is a deliciously sophisticated Carlotta, maintaining her character’s elegant demeanor and poise even as her jousts with Sir Hugo get increasingly serious. It’s easy to accept Rashovich as a veteran actress who has learned to wrap men around her finger, as well as understand the scars and anger she retains from being used as cover by Sir Hugo during their very public, society page worthy relationship.

Connecticut’s Mia Dillon is especially wonderful as Hilde, from her early scenes as the efficient wife maintaining order in Sir Hugo’s life and protecting him from any undue public scrutiny or the potential exhausting toll of a visit from a long-ago paramour. She galvanizes the play in her final scenes with a strength and assertiveness that prove to be remarkably telling.

Three other actors make small, but interesting contributions to the evening, particularly Nicholas Carriere as the composed authoritative waiter Felix who has learned how to accommodate Sir Hugo’s various requests and needs. Two young actors, Bryan Kopp and Paul Willis,Jr., make silent slightly obscured appearances in Sir Hugo’s memories of that long-ago love affair, in a neat directorial touch by Lamos, that underscores the sense of loss that ultimately makes Sir Hugo such a tragic figure.

Fabio Toblini has designed some proper evening wear for Sir Hugo that captures the man’s adherence to the strictures and traditions of an earlier era, while his outfit for Carlotta allows her to make a stunning entrance and maintain a sense of enquity in her verbal exchanges. Hilde is garbed in a most practical suit that underlines her efficacy as wife and ipso facto manager, while also hinting at her natural wisdom. Matthew Richards’ lighting does help focus attention on the central action at a portable room service table where Carlotta and Sir Hugo are dining.

For a modern audience “A Song At Twilight” serves as a reminder of the steps that gay people found necessary to take in order to hide their true nature yet function without too much suspicion under existing societal mores. What Lamos and Murray do well in this production is focus on the toll that such arrangements have on the other parties involved. Lamos’s final image is both touching and unnerving, driving home the point that each of us only gets one chance at life and that only we ourselves can determine whether the sacrifices have been worth it. It will be interesting to see how “A Song At Twilight” plays in the Westport Country Playhouse configuration later this Spring and if Lamos and his cast see the need to make any adjustments or tightening to the production.

“A Song at Twilight” plays at Hartford Stage through March 16. For tickets, call the Box Office at 860.525.5601 or visit the Hartford Stage website at www.hartfordstage.org.

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