Fallen Angels Written by: Noel Coward
Directed by: Claire Hart-Palumbo
Company: Main Street Theatre
Run Dates: July 10 – August 3, 2014
Two married women in happy but passionless marriages find their libidos in overdrive and their friendship strained by competitive jealousy when a mutual former lover sends word of a visit. This potentially juicy story could easily be the synopsis for a modern-day reality TV series or Desperate Housewives spin-off. Instead it’s Noel Coward’s 1925 drawing-room comedy, Fallen Angels, a thin wisp of a play made most enjoyable in this Main Street Theatre production thanks to Claire Hart-Palumbo’s deft direction and several knock out performances that allow Coward’s language to shine and his state of marital attraction humour to land.
In this period piece ‘Girl Gone Wild’ type tale, we meet best friends, Julia (a wonderfully naughty Crystal O’Brien) and Jane (played with a terrific mix of child-like excitement and womanly lust by Lisa Villegas). When their perfectly decent but overly chaste husbands Fred (Bobby Haworth) and Willy (Dain Geist) go off to play golf, the ladies receive word that their shared lover and “one great passion in life”, Maurice (a disappointingly limp Joel Sandel) will be paying a visit. Thus begins the women’s decent into moral quandary and lustful appetites. Should they stay to receive him or leave town to avoid temptation? And if they do stay, will they share Maurice or let fate decide which woman gets to luxuriate in his affections once again. And what of their husbands? Should the women be faulted for wanting to break out of a life where “Passion and adoration subsides to tranquility and a lack of violent emotions?” One’s things for sure, alcohol is called for. And as any ‘bad girl’ genre fan knows, this is where things get nasty. Not only does the liquid courage threaten to unravel Jane and Julia’s friendship, but their marriages as well. However, unlike similar modern tales where real damage is done, we’re living in Coward’s world here where comedy, not tragedy is the aim. So we watch with great amusement knowing that somehow it will all work itself out.
But even if Fallen Angels doesn’t have the heft of Coward’s later works such as Private Lives or Blithe Spirit, it does create grand performance opportunities for the two leading ladies and O’Brien and Villegas are more than up to the task. They preen and banter and bicker and yearn with both feet in, looking dashing all the while in Margaret Crowley’s luxuriously flowy jumpsuits or smart skirt suits. Both talents are a delight to watch as we laugh heartily with and at them the entire show. As a side note, it is a personal relief not to have to call out performers on their poor accents. Here O’Brien and Villegas do a terrific job of keeping the cadence ambiguously British with their forays into French admirable as well.
If it’s possible to steal the show from these powerhouse women, then Elizabeth Marshall Black as Julia’s maid Saunders gets the nod. Don’t let her servant uniform fool you, Saunders is no shrinking violet maid. Instead she inserts herself constantly into the action giving advice in a know it all fashion and bragging about her VIP former employers. Everything from which golf club to use to what key is correct in a piano composition to why one sucks on stones to assuage thirst is in Saunders bag of tricks. Near perfect comedic timing is the particular bag of tricks Marshall Black brings to this role. It’s her borderline caustic looks and remarks that get the most laughs and we are ever grateful for an actress confident enough not to have to play over the top to damn near steal the show.
Fallen Angels plays in three short acts made to feel even shorter thanks to Hart-Palumbo’s snappy direction that keeps the flow moving liquidly on the small, sparsely adorned theatre in the round stage. So it is a shame then in the final moments of the final act that things sputter out. Part of the fault must go to Coward himself for writing a non-twist twist into the plot finale that isn’t nearly as interesting as where we thought the play might go. Part of the blame also lies with Sandel’s underwhelming portrayal of the lusted after and greatly anticipated Maurice. Rather than being treated to a charismatic, larger than life lothario, Sandel’s Maurice lacked the oomph we needed to believe his mystique.
But when experienced in whole, the sag at the end becomes a minor blip in what amounts to a very enjoyable ride. Coward’s musings on the difficulties of maintaining passion in marriage are just as relevant today they were in 1925. I have no doubt there were many attached ladies in the audience laughing on the outside yet taking stock within. And if emotional depth or introspection is not your thing, the terrific leading ladies strutting their stuff along with a feisty maid is reason enough to grab a seat and be prepared to laugh.
For the occasional theatre goer – A comedic plot that moves quickly and effortlessly with several strong performances makes this a fun romp of an evening. Feel free to choose whether you examine the moral and marital underpinnings of the plot or simply sit back and be amused, it’s entertaining either way. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – No, it isn’t one of Coward’s best and yes characters can seem far too one-dimensional to ring true as is especially true of the husbands. But a fun night of theatre is still, well, fun. The female performers in this production are well worth your time and strongly trump any issues with the play as a whole. SEE IT