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Notes of a Coward-ly Literary Lineman

Hannah Yelland and Jim Sturgeon. Photo by Jim Cox.

Hannah Yelland and Jim Sturgeon. Photo by Jim Cox.

BRIEF ENCOUNTER Theater Review

This is the last week to catch Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, so get thee in a Lamborghini and head on out to Beverly Hills to see this splendid production while you still can. The one act Kneehigh Production, adapted and directed by Emma Rice, is wonderfully imaginative, injecting strong dosages of humor, music, dancing and more into this classic saga about the love affair between a man and woman who are married -- to others.

The stagecraft, sets and projections are brilliant, including -- but not limited to -- flesh and blood actors on the stage who somehow walk onscreen into cinematic sequences. Something similar is done in Stoneface, the bioplay with French Stewart starring as Buster Keaton (and if you missed it at Sacred Fools it’s returning June 3 at the Pasadena Playhouse), and of course Keaton himself did something like this special effect in 1924’s Sherlock Jr., just as Woody Allen did in 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. Brief Encounter’s other onstage magic includes the various ways trains are presented, puppetry and literally swinging from the chandeliers.

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The latter is only suggested in the 1945 film version (for some reason the play indicates the movie was made in 1938), when Laura (Cecilia Johnson, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar) stares out of a moving train’s window and fantasizes about her imagined future life with Alec (Trevor Howard in the original screen adaptation). This is the brilliance of the current stage rendition, which opens up that which is merely implicit in the black and white movie, broadening the comic implications between minor characters, notably the railroad worker Albert (Joe Alessi, who has a double role as he also plays Laura’s husband Fred) and the refreshment shopkeeper Myrtle (Annette McLaughling) and refreshment shop employee Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson) who, in turn, couples up with the working class Stanley (Damon Daunno). There’s more tomfoolery in Brief than there was in Parfumerie, the Wallis’ premiere production, which serves to lighten the mood of this tale of tortured love. In addition to beefing up the play’s proletarian characters it adds lots of music beyond the film’s evocative usage of Rachmaninoff’s moody “Second Piano Concerto” and before the curtain lifts theatergoers encounter a string band and singers performing period songs in this production that doesn’t much respect the fourth wall.

Usually it’s the motion picture that opens up a stage version, but here it’s quite the opposite. Brief Encounter (see the original movie here) is, for the most part, stark and realistic, made in the mode of another British train-related film, Basil Wright’s 1936 documentary masterpiece Night Mail. (The recurring motif of the locomotive and train station indicates how the lovers’ lives -- which they long to run away from -- are run by rules, regulations and the exigencies of the all consuming demands of time.)

The picture has some filmic flourishes, especially Laura’s extensive use of interior monologue, and her face’s reflections in the train window and a mirror as a way to suggest her duality: The “respectable” middle class hausfrau, who is trapped into dutifully playing the role of wife and mother but secretly yearns for a more passionate, perhaps purposeful life, just as her lover Alec does when they accidentally encounter one another at the train station. (In a scene replete with Freudian symbolism, Alec, a doctor, removes irritating grit from Laura’s eye, which may also symbolize that he is, quite literally, opening her eyes.)

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Jim Sturgeon and Hannah Yelland. Photo by Jim Cox.

Jim Sturgeon and Hannah Yelland. Photo by Jim Cox.

The 1945 movie (there have been subsequent adaptations, including a 1974 TV movie pairing Richard Burton and Sophia Loren) was directed by David Lean, who was Oscar-nommed for Best Director and who won the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prize. Lean was also co-nominated for a screenwriting Academy Award along with Anthony Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame; curiously, while Noël Coward is accredited as producer, he does not share in the film’s writing credits, although the screenplay is an adaptation of his 1936 Still Life, which was in turn one of 10 Coward-written one-act plays in a cycle called Tonight at 8:30. (BTW, L.A.’s Antaeus Company revived all 10 plays in 2007, as well as Coward’s 1946 anti-fascist chestnut Peace in Our Time in 2011.) Much of the current theatrical production’s dialogue is directly lifted from the movie.

What was Coward -- who was secretly gay in his, um, private life -- getting at with his insightful, poignant look at infidelity in England between the two world wars? Unable to enunciate what his fellow mad dog and Irishman wild Oscar Wilde called “the love that dare not say its name” the closeted Coward transposed his homosexuality into a more acceptable form of transgressive love: An extramarital affair. For in the U.K. of the 1930s and 1940s, adulterous love between a man and a woman each married to others was far more acceptable than the faithfulness of a monogamous gay couple. In his encoded language Coward expressed his conflicts and longing for his, alas, societally-deemed “reprehensible” loving. One suspects that poor Noël, hemmed in by homophobia, may not have been such a blithe spirit after all.

Joe Alessi, Dorothy Atkinson, Annette McLaughlin, Damon Daunno and Hannah Yelland. Photo by Jim Cox.

Joe Alessi, Dorothy Atkinson, Annette McLaughlin, Damon Daunno and Hannah Yelland. Photo by Jim Cox.

As troubling and touching as this is, British thesp Jim Sturgeon, who attended the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and Hannah Yelland, who also played Laura on Broadway, lead a letter perfect ensemble cast, who all excel in this stellar production that uses innovative stage techniques to breathe new life into a vintage film/ play. Emma Rica agilely directs this über-creative play, overseeing the brilliant projection and film designs of Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll. If this better late than never review leaves you too brief a time to encounter this play but you still have a yen for a cup of Coward, don’t cower in despair: As Brief Encounter closes the ultra-talented English playwright/actor/composer/singer/director’s A Song At Twilight opens at the Pasadena Playhouse. So keep that Lamborghini revved up and ready to go, theater-hoppers!

Brief Encounter is being performed Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. through March 23 Dec. 22 in the Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210. For info: (310)746-4000; www.thewaillis.org.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell co-authored the new “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”