Theater review: 'A Song at Twilight' at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
For much of the early 20th century, playwright-actor-songwriter Noel Coward was a stage icon practically synonymous with the Champagne-sipping upper classes he chronicled with so much wit and heartbreak. Although by the 1950s his star had dimmed, in 1966 he pulled off a late-career comeback with his aptly titled play "A Song at Twilight."
This installment of Coward's final stage work, "Suite in Three Keys" -- a trilogy set in the same Swiss luxury hotel suite -- was penned as a vehicle for his return and farewell to the floorboards at age 67. It offers a mature actor the plum role of Sir Hugo Latymer, a cantankerous retired novelist supposedly modeled on Somerset Maugham (although much in it can be read as autobiographical), who finds his carefully constructed career persona threatened by revelations about his past. Orson Bean fills the bill nicely in Odyssey Theatre Ensemble's revival, wringing every drop of literate inflection and acerbic venom from Coward's signature glittering dialogue.
As Sir Hugo and his German wife, Hilde (Alley Mills), languish in the elegant neutrality of their hotel suite, unexpected baggage arrives for dinner in the form of his much younger onetime mistress, Carlotta (Laurie O'Brien). Between bites of caviar, she masterfully pulls his strings with love letters he wrote at a time "before your mind had been corrupted by fame and your heart by caution."
Admittedly, "A Song at Twilight" doesn't rank in the top tier of the Coward canon, and at opening the production still needed some settling in, but director James Glossman finds fresh appeal in the piece that stands out from endless revivals of "Blithe Spirit" and "Private Lives." For all its lively bons mots and repartee, this is a much darker play with tragic echoes of "The Astonished Heart" and even "The Vortex," and notable for Coward's unprecedented candor about sexual orientation -- hardly a taboo today, but still potent in his treatment of its psychological consequences.
In typical Coward fashion, men think only they are in control, while women know they wield the real power -- obliquely when possible, ruthlessly when necessary. Watching the excellently portrayed wife and mistress team up for a brutally honest dissection of Sir Hugo's character while he sputters helplessly evokes a more universal truth: that lack of conscience can make Cowards of us all.
-- Philip Brandes
"A Song at Twilight,"Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays (and Wednesdays Feb. 3, 10 and 17), 2 p.m. Sundays (except Feb. 21 at 7 p.m.). Ends March 7. $25 and $30. (310) 477-2055 or odysseytheatre.com/. Running time: 2 hours.
Photo: Laurie O'Brien, left, Alley Mills and Orson Bean. Photo credit: Ron Sossi