Noel Coward's seldom-seen 'Peace in Our Time' rings a bell
Antaeus Company's upcoming staging of the Noel Coward drama “Peace in Our Time” won't be the first in America after all, the Los Angeles ensemble acknowledged Tuesday -- or even the first in L.A. But it will be the first in a very long time.
Antaeus made a mistake in announcing that its production, which opens Oct. 20, would be the U.S. premiere of a piece first staged in London in 1947, company spokeswoman Lucy Pollak said. In it, Coward set aside his trademark sparkling comedy and imagined how life would have gone if the Nazis had conquered Great Britain during World War II.
Our previous report on "Peace in Our Time" -- which Antaeus member Barry Creyton is adapting from the original script, cutting dated or obscure material and inserting nine Coward songs -- caught the eye of reader Valerie Reynolds, who cheerfully alerted us that the Pasadena Playhouse has Antaeus beat by more than half a century.
Reynolds (pictured above, second from the right in a scene from the Pasadena production) said she was 15 when she showed up for an audition and director Barbara Vajda took her under her wing, casting her as a girl who frequents the pub Coward used as a microcosm of England under Nazi rule.
A visit to Times archives turned up a review, dated July 15, 1950, and headlined “Coward Play Impresses.” The playhouse mounted “Peace in Our Time” on its main stage as part of its 16th annual Midsummer Drama Festival, and critic Katherine Von Blon threw bouquets: “… a story filled with heartbreak, over which the indomitable courage of dust-doomed humanity rises exultantly through the sheer passion of spirit. ... Vajda’s sympathetic grasp … and her professional direction of the cast of 40 resulted in a genuine tour de force.”
1950 was a big year for Coward in Pasadena: The Times in November noted that Vajda’s playhouse staging of one of his more representative comedies, “Present Laughter,” was that play’s “western premiere.”
Reynolds couldn’t remember her character’s name -- but she said that one of her scenes in “Peace in Our Time” involved throwing money at a bartender for refusing to serve her a drink; in the scene pictured, she’d been picked up by the German soldier at the far right.
“I was Vera Sweet, an evil Washington gossip columnist,” Reynolds said. After that, “I got tired of the rejection and pounding of pavement, but I had my 15 minutes of fame.”
A journey through Times archives reveals that the Pasadena Playhouse production was not, in fact, the first staging of “Peace in Our Time” in Los Angeles. That honor goes to the Geller Theatre Workshop, which gave Coward’s play a weeklong run in September 1949. The Geller, at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, was the oldest acting studio in Los Angeles, founded in the 1920s by Ben Bard, who in the 1950s became head of talent training at 20th Century Fox. The school changed hands several times; in1957 it moved to a different location and was renamed Theatre of Arts. Under that name, it’s still a going concern.
In the late 1940s, the Geller was mounting a play a week to showcase its students, and some of the shows were first-time L.A. runs for plays that had been seen on Broadway. The studio ran a periodic advertorial in The Times, headlined “Geller Gossip.” One installment touted the 1949 “Peace in Our Time” as the play’s American premiere. In 1951, the Geller brought “Peace in Our Time” back for another run -- and Times critic Von Blon liked it again, citing it as one of the year’s highlights on the L.A. theater scene.
One more footnote: The 1950 Pasadena staging featured A. Ben-Astar as Richter, the German official pictured with Nazi armband. According to the Internet Movie Database, Albert Ben-Astar (whose screen name was Ben Astar) was born in what was then Palestine in 1909 and died in Tarzana in 1988.
Later in 1950, The Times reported that Ben-Astar had landed a part on the television series “Queen for a Day.” His family, it noted, had lived in Palestine for six generations, and Ben-Astar had run a repertory company there. He’d studied under noted director Max Reinhardt, made headway on British and European stages, and had landed a small part in William Wyler’s film “Carrie” because he knew its star, Laurence Olivier.
-- Mike Boehm
Photo: A scene from the Pasadena Playhouse's 1950 production of Noel Coward's drama "Peace in Our Time." Credit: Jerome Robinson / courtesy of Valerie Reynolds