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Noel Coward play to get U.S. premiere from L.A.'s Antaeus Co.

September 26, 2011 |  4:27 pm

Noel Coward in Nevada in 1955
Noel Coward wrote more than 60 plays, musicals and revues –- and nearly 30 of them landed on Broadway. “Private Lives” is due for its seventh Broadway revival this fall, starring Kim Cattrall.

Now L.A.’s Antaeus Company will write a new, belated chapter in Coward’s artistic history on these shores: On Oct. 20 it will open “Peace in Our Time,” a 65-year-old drama that had not been staged in America until now.

The play, written in 1946 and first produced in 1947, has humorous elements but doesn't fit the mold that established Coward, who died in 1973, as the 20th century epitome of urbane and frothy British wit. It imagines the aftermath of a Nazi conquest of Britain, focusing on several years in the life of a London pub whose customers include occupying Germans.

Working with a go-ahead from representatives of Coward’s estate, Antaeus member Barry Creyton says he has sliced about 40 minutes of dialogue from the original three-hour play. Rather than shortening the evening to suit today’s presumably shrunken attention spans, the idea was to remove material that is dated or too topical and replace it with nine of Coward’s lesser-known songs. Creyton picked them to fit the action and mood, weaving them into the play’s fabric as the pub denizens sing to entertain themselves.

“In spite of the way people generally think of Coward plays, he was fiercely patriotic,” Creyton said, and the drama envisions its English characters -– except for some collaborators --  finding ways to maintain their integrity and muster resistance.

Creyton, whose career as an actor and writer has taken him from his native Australia to England to the United States (he has lived in L.A. since 1991), said former Antaeus artistic director Jeanie Hackett asked him last year to tackle the adaptation after he’d made his acting debut with the company in an adaptation of the Balzac novel “Cousin Bette.” 

In cutting Coward's play, he sought to remove some of the “unwieldy” elements he thinks had prevented it from being produced in America until now. He has reduced the roster of characters from 34 to 22 (although Antaeus’ policy of double-casting each part means 46 actors will be involved, directed by Casey Stangl).  Most of what’s been cut, Creyton said, is “political polemic” that “means very little today, and very little in America.”

Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain The play’s title is Coward’s embrace of a common slight misquotation of Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister who upon returning to London following a 1938 meeting with Adolf Hitler announced that an agreement he’d struck with the Nazi dictator meant “peace for our time.” The Munich Pact, signed 73 years ago this week, forestalled immediate war with Germany by yielding de facto control over Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. In reality, it brought peace for 11 months.

In the play, Creyton said, we learn that Chamberlain’s successor, Winston Churchill, has been executed by the occupying Germans (in real life, Churchill marshaled British resolve to hold out under bombardment while preparing to repel an invasion that never came because the Germans could not establish air superiority).

The Nazis in the drama “are ruthless... but they’re very nice about it,” Creyton said. “They are what we expect them to be. The real villain is a left-wing intellectual. [Coward] hated the appeasers, and the chief villain is a guy who is bowing under the occupation and doing everything they want.”

As for Neville Chamberlain, who died in 1940 with his nation under aerial attack, “he is mentioned only as 'that silly little man.’”


 Classic stage company Antaeus parts with artistic director

Antaeus Company doubles up 'King Lear'

Book review: The threat of peace in wartime London:'Ten Days to Destiny'

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: Noel Coward in Nevada in 1955; Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain (in dark coat) in 1938. Credits: Loomis Dean/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images (Coward); AFP/Getty Images.