Chicago Theatre Review
A Confectionary Delight
Fallen Angels – Remy Bumppo
Early in Noel Coward’s wide and varied career, after his initial theatrical success with “The Young Idea” and “The Vortex,” the actor/playwright wrote a somewhat scandalous comedy that put his name on the lips of theatergoers everywhere. It was 1925 and women were bobbing their hair, rouging their knees, raising their hemlines and becoming Jazz Babies. Female independence was in vogue, but it was still considered a revolutionary new movement by the older, more restrained upper class.
Into this vo-de-o-do world Coward penned a new three-act comedy entitled “Fallen Angels.” The play tells the story of Julia and Jane, two upper middle class women who’ve been longtime best friends. The ladies are each married to proper, conservative gentlemen, and yet both share a secret, sexual past with the same Frenchman, Maurice. During one particular evening, after their husbands, Willy and Fred, have departed for a golfing weekend in Chichester, Julia and Jane dine, drink and happily dish about their past paramour. Revelry turns into rivalry as the ladies grow increasingly tipsy and competitive in their reminisces and fantasies.
Administering to their every need is Saunders, an eccentric new maid recently hired because the previous servant’s name was too difficult for Willy to remember. The new domestic is a real Renaissance woman, an accomplished, jack-of-all-trades with a dry sense of humor. When the Frenchman finally arrives at Julia and Willy’s apartment the following morning, all the secrets and scandal become sorted out and life returns to the way it was…or does it?
Coward’s comedy celebrates the newly liberated woman of the Roaring Twenties, females who, after WWI, were finding their voice, canvasing for equal rights and following their dreams by living their own lives and have a great time doing so. The playwright’s deconstruction of the sophisticated Victorian drawing room Comedy of Manners, popularized by Oscar Wilde, resulted in audiences being scandalized by what they saw on the stage. Women talking about sex, confiding in each other about past liaisons and future fantasies, not to mention getting drunk before our very eyes, was shocking to most audiences. Today we laugh openly at such goings-on but in the 1920’s this was revolutionary and groundbreaking entertainment.
Actress Shannon Cochran draws from her experience in the musical theatre to direct this fast-paced production, unbelievably Remy Bumppo’s first foray into the plays of Noel Coward. Each act opens with high-kicking jazz from the 20’s (thanks to an adrenaline-pumped sound design by Christopher Kriz), while the actors joyfully dance onto the stage and into the story. Ms. Cochran’s innocently naughty production seethes with energy and indulgence. It’s fueled particularly by the two ladies’ childlike exuberance at pulling off this caper. Jeff Bauer’s clean, very posh scenic design provides enough playing room for this very physical farce, while still looking high-class and expensive. Janice Pytel’s lush costumes are exquisite, providing several changes for both couples. And dialect coach Eva Breneman has guided her actors toward just the right British sound, particularly with Saunders’ brusque Highland brogue.
As Julia, lovely Emjoy Gavino returns to the Greenhouse stage in yet another wonderful performance, having impressed in Remy Bumppo’s recent “Love and Information.” Her character is giddy at the prospect of a new adventure, but she’s even more energized by being able to one-up her friend. Jane, played by Eliza Stoughton, triumphs once again, remembered for her fine work in “Both Your Houses” and “You Never Can Tell.” As Julia’s best friend and strongest rival, Ms. Stoughton gives in to overindulgence and leaves inhibitions behind. Her physical comedy is outrageously funny.
Fred Geyer and Jesse Dornan are quite, quite perfect, both handsome and controlled as Fred and Willy. One can’t imagine either of these gentlemen ever breaking the rules or even considering the kind of folly that their wives have enjoyed. As Maurice, the much-anticipated French flame for whom both ladies are pining, Joshua Moaney fills the bill. Handsome, well-built and suave as Louis Jourdan, Mr. Moaney makes an auspicious debut with this company.
But it’s Annabel Armour who steals the production. One of Remy Bumppo’s finest, most accomplished and versatile actors, Ms. Armour creates an eccentric, wryly humorous, take-charge Scottish matron for whom no challenge is a problem. The actress blends a staunch military temperament with a whimsical, almost elfin quality. The all-knowing, worldly-wise Saunders, cooks, serves, sings, golfs, plays the piano and keeps everyone on task. Every household should have a Saunders to keep it running like clockwork.
It’s fair to say that Noel Coward’s career as a writer of dry, sophisticated British comedies was launched with this early play. Unfortunately, of all his plays, this drawing room farce is the least produced, usually in favor of his more popular works, such as “Private Lives.” Kudos for Remy Bumppo for not only producing their first Coward comedy, but for digging into his repertoire for a play that feels brand new. With women in the leading roles, and a very funny supporting female character who all but steals the show, no doubt the prototype for Madame Arcati in “Blithe Spirit,” this is a unique, groundbreaking comedy of its time. Shannon Cochran’s production is fresh and alive, sizzling with electricity and funny, unforgettable characters. It’s a confectionary delight, particularly delicious for this time of year.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 28-January 10 by Remy Bumppo Theatre at The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the Greenhouse box office at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.RemyBumppo.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.