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Twilight’s Last Gleaming: The Beards and the Bard

Ed Rampell: Coward’s A Song at Twilight is all the more remarkable in that here, at last, the artist sets aside his coy persona in favor of candor, with the play’s self-revelatory characters and story.
Bruce Davison, Sharon Lawrence (Photos by Michael Lamont)

Bruce Davison, Sharon Lawrence (Photos by Michael Lamont)

A SONG AT TWILIGHT Theater Review

Same sex marriage has, as of this writing, just been legalized in Britain. What does this have to do with Noël Coward’s A Song at Twilight, which was written in 1966? At that time, homosexuality was still illegal in the U.K., and the bard knew that not even Sir Noël’s exalted status as a man of letters, song, stage and screen could exempt him from prosecution by a homophobic state. Consider the persecution of author/playwright Wild Oscar Wilde in the 1890s and the bust of Shakespearean thespian Sir John Gielgud, more than half a century later. So Coward, who in his private life was a closeted gay or bisexual man who was very much in the public eye, had to tread a tightrope with tremendous trepidation as he trod the boards, made films, composed 300 songs, wrote, quipped and kibitzed with the glitterati. Like Cole Porter, he posed as what was euphemistically called a “sophisticate.” So Coward’s A Song at Twilight, which premiered a year before Great Britain’s not-so-great ban on homosexuality was finally lifted, is all the more remarkable in that here, at last, the artist sets aside his coy persona in favor of candor, with the play’s self-revelatory characters and story.

Sharon Lawrence, Roxanne Hart

Sharon Lawrence, Roxanne Hart

In Twilight, Sir Hugo Latymer (Bruce Davison) is a celebrated scribe who, as the title suggests, is approaching or entering his twilight years as, after a health crisis, the writer is coming to grips with his own mortality. Latymer would be, more or less the actual age of Coward in 1966 (when Twilight, which is part of three plays collectively entitled Suite in Three Keys, is set) as well as of Davison, that is in their late sixties. Sir Hugo is a vainglorious, image conscious, charter member of the globetrotting literati, well aware of his status and position in the literary lions’ den. He is “holed up” with his longtime wife, the German-born Hilde Latymer (Roxanne Hart), at a posh hotel in what the playbill tells us is supposed to be Switzerland. Here, as somebody who has spent lots of time in that Alpine nation, I must quibble with the outdoor setting glimpsed through the set’s windows, which looks absolutely nothing like Switzerland. However, to be fair, scenic designer Tom Buderwitz’s luxurious suite does indeed capture the old world charm and elegance of Swiss deluxe hotel properties, such as St. Moritz’s Badrutt’s Palace or Gstaad Palace. Hearkening back to drawing room comedies, the somewhat old-fashioned (in style) play’s entire onstage action takes place in this private suite. There, Sir Hugo’s long ago lover, Carlotta Gray (the wily, vivacious Sharon Lawrence) -- a fading actress who, unlike Latymer, never attained stardom -- visits him. It is the first time since perhaps the 1940s the ex-lovers have come face to face, and this tête-à-tête is the source of most of Twilight’s drama -- and farce. Far from being a happy reunion of onetime lovebirds, as Hilde departs to meet a friend whom her husband derides as a “lesbian,” the rendezvous between the preening Sir Hugo and the scheming Carlotta, who has ulterior motives for meeting up with her ex-beau, quickly turns acrimonious. However, your plot spoiler averse critic won’t reveal these plot points in detail. Suffice it to say that Carlotta threatens to blow Latymer’s carefully cultivated image and to expose his persona as a married heterosexual man posing as Lady Latymer’s lover. As stated, the thinly disguised characters and storyline expose what made the camouflaged Coward tick and the source of his shtick. In particular, the wellspring of his waspish if witty sense of humor, writing cutting words that often sting their subjects, is explored. For instance, feeding Carlotta’s pique is Sir Hugo’s dismissive treatment of her in his autobiography. Success has eluded the aging actress who is vain, as evinced by her flirting with the youthful, Continental servant Felix (Zach Bandler) and Gray’s regaling Latymer with details of her plastic surgery, beauty treatments and the like. This prompts him to quip why she’s verbally disclosing what it costs so much to conceal. In any case, if the vicissitudes of life force one to live in the closet, regularly resorting to verbal barbs and bombs as veiled ways to vent one’s inner frustration and weariness can be understood -- if not necessarily excused. Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that rot, eh wot? The acting is excellent, and Art Manke adeptly directs his ensemble, although this Pasadena Playhouse production is constrained, contained as it is to one location and told almost in real time, in sharp contrast to the recent freewheeling, free (and yes, blithe) spirited adaptation of Coward’s Brief Encounter at the Wallis Annenberg Center, which was full of highly entertaining aural and visual verve and panache. This Twilight literally consists mainly of actors (often sitting in their sitting room) talking to one another. Fortunately the cast is so superb that they succeed in pulling it off. The creaky setting may be another function of Coward’s aging, in this, one of his swan songs. As he contemplated old age and death, Coward -- who first wrote a produced play 50 years earlier, around 1917 -- returned to a tried and true, if stagey, form. (To be acidic and catty as Coward often was, the text and format could have had the same title as his 1922 play, The Queen Was in the Parlour.) Davison is a canny choice to portray Coward’s alter ego, as he was Oscar-nominated for co-starring in the pioneering gay-themed 1989 movie Longtime Companion. Beneath his evening jacket (Coward’s trademark) and goatee, the white haired Davison -- who’d epitomized youthful rebellion as the star of 1970’s The Strawberry Statement, based on the Columbia University student uprising -- is barely recognizable.

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Sharon Lawrence co-stars in the Pasadena Playhouse's 2008 production of Orson's Shadow, with Bruce McGill as Orson Welles and Libby West as Joan Plowright.

Sharon Lawrence co-stars in the Pasadena Playhouse's 2008 production of Orson's Shadow, with Bruce McGill as Orson Welles and Libby West as Joan Plowright.

The sizzling Lawrence, who’d co-starred as grizzled Detective Andy Sipowitz’s (Dennis Franz) wife in the great NYPD Blue TV series, for which she received three well-deserved Emmy nominations, is no stranger to the legit stage, having appeared on- and Off-Broadway. Indeed, a few years ago, 3,000 miles Off-Broadway she rather memorably portrayed Vivien Leigh in a Pasadena Playhouse production of Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow, opposite Bruce McGill as Orson Welles. As the wife who has consigned herself to joining her husband in his carefully closeted life, Roxanne Hart emerges as a spouse who demands her due. And, for the resolutely anti-Nazi Coward, who starred in, wrote and co-directed with David Lean the 1942 classic World War II morale booster In Which We Serve and wrote 1946’s Peace in Our Time (wonderfully revived by the Antaeus Company in 2011), he generously gives Hilde Latymer some choice lines criticizing anti-German stereotyping. She may be Teutonic but Hilde loves her gin and tonic. Twilight’s denouement cleverly resolves the play in a way that will best serve and preserve Sir Hugo’s reputation and legacy. Be that as it may, this is overall a courageous work wherein the playwright -- who also originally portrayed Sir Hugo -- exposed the confines and injustice of being forced to live in a closet. What an awful thing to inflict on human beings and what a cost they endure in order to live up to society’s stringent standards. But as wedding bells ring across merry olde England, much of the USA and beyond for same gender couples, forcing people to live a lie at the risk of imprisonment and worse is, thankfully, receding into the twilight. Now that’s something Noël could compose a song to sing out. [dc]A[/dc] Song at Twilight is playing Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. through April 13 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. For more info: (626) 356-7529; www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org. Ed Rampell L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.”

Ed Rampell