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Theatre in Review: Love Noël: The Songs and Letters of Noël Coward (Irish Repertory Theatre)

KT Sullivan, Steve Ross. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

For a cool, refreshing sip of gin and tonic on a hot summer night, I commend to you this tribute to one of the twentieth century's greatest entertainers. Noël Coward did a great many things well; this piece, somewhat unusually, celebrates him as a correspondent, the source of an unceasing flow of wit directed at a cornucopia of boldface names. Barry Day, who edited the published edition of Coward's letters, here combines priceless excerpts from them with a delightful selection of numbers from his revues and musicals. In their mocking treatment of celebrities and their first-world problems, plus their coolly detached treatment of love and romance, they provide a kind of air-conditioning for the soul, a welcome blast of reason in a world gone mad.

Coward was a master of friendship, but that is not to say that his many bosom companions were exempt from his peerlessly sharp tongue. To Elaine Stritch, whose religious devotion was outshone only by her fondness for a drop, he compiled a list of his hopes, including "that your breath is relatively free from the sinful taint of alcohol, that you are going regularly to confession and everywhere else that is necessary to go regularly," adding "you must remember that your first duty is to me and the Catholic Church -- in that order." (Stritch wrote back that she was on the wagon, which, as it turned out, meant two beers a day -- all right, three.) Never one to shy away from giving advice, he tried to buck up Marlene Dietrich when she was in the throes of an unhappy fling with Yul Brynner: "It is difficult for me to wag my finger at you from so far away, particularly as my heart aches for you but really, darling, you must pack up this nonsensical situation once and for all..." When Greta Garbo, calling him "dear little Coward," proposed that he might become her "little bride," he commented, "I very nearly accepted -- except that I just knew she'd insist on top billing!" And a moment is spared to recall his famed exchange of telegrams with Gertrude Lawrence, who, upon receiving the script of Private Lives, responded, "Have read new play. Stop. Nothing in it that cannot be fixed. Stop." Coward instantly replied, "The only thing that will need to be fixed is your performance. Stop."

All of this drollery is in the capable hands of Steve Ross, the celebrated cabaret performer, who acts as narrator, stepping into the role of Coward as needed, and KT Sullivan, who -- with her upswept blonde hair, perpetually surprised eyes, and air of a grande dame who has dropped into the corner bar for a quick one and a couple of salty stories -- plays everyone else. Adopting a fluty voice, she becomes the nameless actress who once assured Coward, "Before making an entrance I always stand aside and let God go on first." (Coward's assessment: "I remember that on that particular occasion, He gave a singularly uninspired performance.") Adopting her best hammer-and-tongs manner, she becomes the novelist Edna Ferber, who, beset by relatives on Thanksgiving, notes, "I have just viewed the uncooked bird -- a vast, plump, white creature that looks appallingly like a decapitated baby." And lowering her voice to the sub-basement level, she channels Stritch's signature bark in "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" ("What explains this mass mania/To leave Pennsylvania/And clack around like flocks of geese/Demanding dry martinis on the isles of Greece?")

Sullivan's high-style screwball humor makes a lovely complement to Ross, whose fleet, fluent, unobtrusive piano style and skill at throwing away bons mots make him an ideal master of ceremonies. He amusingly excavates the mounting rage in "Mrs. Worthington," a warning to a stage mother about her ungifted offspring ("Though they said at the school of acting/She was lovely as Peer Gynt/I fear on the whole/An ingenue role/Would emphasize her squint.") And he teams up niftily for Sullivan in "Bronxville Darby and Joan," a gimlet-eyed tribute to a long-running marriage "(We're a dear old couple and we hate one another.")

The latter song, a comedy number from Sail Away, one of Coward's later musicals, is very much of a piece with his ballads, which display a marked tension between lushly romantic melodies and words that dispel any illusions about the staying power of romance. There's a strong hint of rue in "Mad About the Boy" ("Will it ever cloy/This odd diversity of misery and joy?"), "Where Are the Songs We Sung?" ("Where, in the limbo of the swiftly passing years/Lie all our hopes and dreams and fears?"), "I'll Remember Her" ("I'll relive/Oh, so vividly/Our sad and sweet/Incomplete affair"), and even the tongue-in-cheek malaise of "World Weary" ("I want a horse and plow, chickens, too/Just one cow with a wistful moo"). Indeed, despite the cavalcade of friends and lovers, Coward, as he wrote, followed his secret heart, his essentially solitary revealed in songs like "Sail Away" and "I Travel Alone." Oddly, his most romantic achievement may be "London Pride," a gorgeous wartime tribute to the city he loved above all others ("Cradle of our memories/Of our hopes and fears.")

Director Charlotte Moore presides over the evening with the lightest of touches, aided by the solid contributions of set designer James Morgan and lighting designer Michael Gottlieb, but it is the two stars who turn the Irish Rep's tiny studio theatre into a living room where they can entertain their friends with superbly crafted songs and sophisticated repartee.

It is generally assumed that Coward pronounced his own verdict on himself in the song "If Love Were All," especially in the oft-quoted lyric, "But I believe that since my life began/The most I've had is just/A talent to amuse.") As if that were a small thing; grace such as he possessed, however hard won, is a rare thing indeed. --David Barbour

(8 August 2019)

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