Passion is most certainly a tiger. It looks so cuddly; you just want to bury your face in its fluffy orange and black fur. But that would be a very bad idea. So learn Julia and Jane, the two heroines of Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels, now playing at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre: flirting with the thought of seeing “Maurice” again (a Frenchman with whom they’d each had dreamy continental affairs before meeting their husbands), their sweet little passion rapidly runs wild until it threatens to devour their manners, their friendship, and their marriages. This is an opportunity to see a seldom-performed play by the master of the bon mot, a screwball comedy with scandalous hints of premarital sex.
Fallen Angels is one of Coward’s first plays, but even in his twenties he was flourishing his trademark razor-sharp insight into the mannerisms and psyches of the privileged class. With surgical precision, he slices away layers of propriety in the centerpiece scene where Julia and Jane are waiting—in full evening wear, including tiaras— for Maurice to call. They go from cocktails to champagne to Benedictine, rapidly regressing from best buddies in a mutual predicament to ragingly soused rivals. This sitcom-like premise gives ample opportunities for a pair of funny actresses, which Kay Allmand and Beth Mulkerron both exploit to the full. As Julia, Allmand flaunts the limberness of a trained dancer; the way she takes a seat with a twist that spins out her gown and lets it drape perfectly, is a little marvel of comic grace; while Mulkerron, as the more emotional Jane, brings a expressive, likeable innocence to her character. As a maid-of-all-trades, Molly Rhode often threatens to steal the show; this multi-talented actress can rattle off a comic speech, set the table with great panache (and a good deal more vigorous shimmying than would be strictly considered either proper or characteristic of a former nun), and sing in florid French while accompanying herself on the piano. As a grace note, director C. Michael Wright has also given her a solo (recalling Harpo Marx’s musical interludes) where the action stops for her to play the entire Moonlight Sonata with exaggerated gestures of mock passion.
There’s a running gag where, at the crux of some emotional dilemma, the bossy Julia opens a box and says “Here, have a cigarette.” Jane takes it, but refuses Julia’s offered lighter with a shrug, and the two proceed to suck on their unlit sticks. These moments reveal that, though the play is from the 30s, the production is very much of our own time: Coward’s audience thought nothing of smoking onstage, but times have changed; vanishingly few people appreciate the delicious escape of nicotine anymore. Rather than cut the line, Wright has made an odd little piece of business out of it, and an anti-smoking message simultaneously. In this vein, the production seems not to entirely trust the featherweight script’s urbanity to carry the evening: the three leads play everything in an broadly mannered style that would have likely seemed clownish in the days of Lunt and Fontaine. But Wright has been directing at MCT for over 10 years, and he must know best what his audience likes. All the same, some people might prefer a slightly more natural style, letting the laughs come where they may, rather than constantly semaphoring “this is a comedy.” What we get is a particularly farcical interpretation of a period piece, a style choice supported by Maureen Chavez-Kruger’s set design: a fine upper class parlor that on closer examination reveals playful, almost cartoonish elements.
It would be an awful spoiler to say more than that Maurice turns out to be surprisingly sillier than we’d been led to imagine. It seems that the dangerous passions he aroused in the two happily married women arose from the simple fact that he treated them like they were special—something that their newspaper-hiding, golf-obsessed, mouthful-talking husbands had obviously ceased to do. Coward is too good a satirist not to end the play with the wives winning and the husbands’ complacency shattered. The tiger is loose—and things will never be the same.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents
by Noel Coward
Playing through May 1
Broadway Theatre Center