Now that the centenary of his birth has brought Noel Coward back into vogue, it may seem strange that he ever went out of fashion in the first place.
But this new production of his 1960 play "Waiting in the Wings" provides the answer. Watching this fussy, uninspired show, you understand precisely why some of Coward's literary heirs wanted to sweep this kind of stuff off the stage.
"Wings" was Coward's 50th stage piece. By the time he wrote it, the energy, danger and sharpness of his early work were almost gone. There are flashes of the old wit, vigorous dialogue and comic timing. But they serve only to light up the contrast between this and Coward's best plays.
The play is marked by Coward's awareness of all this. Set in The Wings, a home for retired actresses, it is laced with the sadness of those who can no longer dazzle onstage. The only emotion it can muster is the poignancy of life after stardom.
Coward does, for a while, promise to introduce something like a plot. The new arrival, Lauren Bacall's Lotta Bainbridge, is an old enemy of one of the senior residents, Rosemary Harris' May Davenport. What is the cause of their mutual hatred? How will they manage to live under the same roof?
Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are disappointingly bland. The reasons for their falling-out turn out to be all too predictable. And they manage to get along through good, old-fashioned British politeness.
The plea for good manners implied in all of this may be worthy. But it's also terribly dull.
Weirdly, this version of "Wings" actually takes pains to drain much of the remaining life out of the piece. It's billed as being "revisited by Jeremy Sams." But the purpose of Sams' visit was apparently to take away whatever was left of the family silver.
In Coward's original, for example, a key moment is the onstage death of a feisty old Irish actress, splendidly played here by Helena Carroll. But Sams decides to keep her alive, and replaces this moment with the offstage death of another old actress we haven't even seen.
Michael Langham's stuffy production manages a similar trick - exaggerating the play's faults while failing to highlight its strengths. Often slow and awkward, it gives us little sense of Coward's sharp humor.
The remaining virtue of the production is the chance to see some veteran actresses at work. The biggest stars, of course, are Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris - but neither really dominates the cast.
For Bacall, the role of Lotta is actually quite difficult. The tone and mood of the piece are so frightfully stiff-upper-lip that her sensuous American presence places her on the outside. She retains a curiously detached air.
Harris has a different problem. She gets the haughty grandeur that her role demands perfectly, but the play just doesn't give her very much else to do.
So it is in the smaller, less-central roles that we get the strongest acting. Patricia Conolly's birdlike Maudie, still living in her vaudeville past, is wonderfully touching. Helen Stenborg's senile Sarita brings a vibrant breath of reality whenever she comes onstage.
The pity is that this magic, from a theatrical time that's now passing by, is dimmed by the surrounding dullness.
Yesterday would have been the 100th birthday of Noel Coward, a man who, with a singular talent to amuse, typified the century he graced.
Last night at the Walter Kerr Theater we had the New York premiere of one of Coward's last plays, "Waiting in the Wings" -- one of Coward's favorites and a work he considered among his more important.
But it was so poorly received at its London premiere that, having personally missed the first night, I was not prompted to catch up with it later. Seeing it now only confirms my earlier hunch.
It has no discernible story. A group of very elderly and indigent English actresses, all once distinguished members of the profession, find themselves in a retirement home called The Wings, waiting patiently for death or the oblivion of geriatric gaga, whichever arrives first.
The play has two thrusts and one incident. The thrusts are a 30-year-old feud between an established resident, May Davenport (Rosemary Harris), and a newcomer to the fold, an American Lotta Bainbridge (Lauren Bacall). The other is whether money can be raised to build a solarium, to give the old biddies their deserved place in the sun. Will they get it?
The sole incident is a fire started by Sarita Myrtle (Helen Stenborg) to establish her as a recruit for the funny farm and to close the first act.
There are also fringe happenings -- a visiting undercover journalist invades their privacy, there's an impromptu singalong party on New Year's Eve that gets interrupted by the death of the oldest, and unseen, inhabitant, and the return of a prodigal son.
A fine cast has been gathered together. Harris is masterly in a study of icy disdain, gradually defreezing to cool superiority. Bacall, after an oddly shaky ensemble start, settles down to a beautifully calculated performance.
Stenborg is a ditsy delight, and shrewdly professional performances emerge from old hands like Patricia Connolly, Barnard Hughes, Dana Ivey, Simon Jones, Rosemary Murphy and Elizabeth Wilson.
If the production has a future on Broadway it will, I suspect, be in the resourceful hands of its actors. Indeed, looking back, it has a cast list that seems better than the play.
In a city where snubbing is an advanced social sport, Rosemary Harris is offering a master class in the form's more refined elements that no climber (or actor) should miss. The lessons are being administered with serene majesty from the stage of the Walter Kerr Theater, where Noel Coward's ''Waiting in the Wings'' opened last night, and there are few sights more warming on Broadway at the moment than that of Ms. Harris being chilly.
Ms. Harris plays May Davenport, an actress who once ruled the West End of London and is now the unofficial but uncontested queen of the Wings, a genteel retirement home for ladies of the theater. May, if one may be so presumptuous as to call her that, exudes that very lofty graciousness common to members of the nobility.
When she is offended, and she often has reason to be, she expresses her displeasure with fractional shifts of her chin or her eyebrows, delicate gestures that nonetheless register like thunderclaps. Faced with the unwelcome presence of a woman who, she believes, betrayed her decades ago (played by Lauren Bacall, whose own theatrical weapons are useless here), Ms. Harris's May treats her adversary as if she were a missed lighting cue on opening night: something to ignore and to rise above with aplomb.
Who says a life in the theater doesn't prepare you for life outside it? The great pleasure of Ms. Harris's performance in this shaky but likable production of ''Wings,'' a 1960 play only now receiving its Broadway premiere, is that it does indeed evoke a whole existence spent before footlights. May Davenport's style of acting may be seriously dated -- she's not above putting a wrist to her forehead in a moment of distress -- but it definitely has its uses. Royalty in exile she may be, but royalty May remains.
Coward, who would have turned 100 this month, loved his theatrical divas, women for whom the lines between onstage and off were never clearly drawn. He began writing about (as well as for) them in the 1920's with the wickedly funny ''Hay Fever,'' a work on which Ms. Harris left her inimitable stamp in a 1985 revival.
''Wings,'' one of Coward's last completed plays, looks at the same breed of exotic creatures in their waning years, when their careers are behind them and death only a short distance ahead. It's a gallant, affectionate and cripplingly contrived work, widely dismissed in reviews as a weak, oversugared cup of tea when it first opened in London four decades ago.
With the subsequent (and deserved) renaissance of Coward's reputation, critical arguments have been made for ''Wings'' as a neglected twilight masterpiece. Certainly, it is atypically infused with mortal shadows and fears, but it is also as creaky as an Edwardian melodrama, a work in which buried secrets and buried hearts of gold are exhumed in carefully arranged confrontations. Although it has charming examples of whimsical Coward banter, the play can't be treated as a frolic. It is, in other words, exceedingly difficult to pull off.
The director Michael Langham's unsteady interpretation of ''Wings'' doesn't begin to smooth over the work's patchiness, but the evening certainly isn't the disaster it was rumored to be during its tryout in Boston. Even with extensive cuts and revisions by Jeremy Sams, the play feels long in the telling. And Ms. Bacall, the show's chief draw in recognizability, is simply miscast as Ms. Harris's rival. Her consequent discomfort shows.
Still, ''Wings'' provides a rare and welcome chance to see a host of actresses over 60 demonstrating, with gratifying relish, that they still have the wattage to light up a Broadway stage: such estimable veterans as Rosemary Murphy, Elizabeth Wilson, Bette Henritze and Helen Stenborg.
Only a few of them convey, as Ms. Harris does, the very particular show business legacies that Coward understood so well. (Ms. Bacall, who is of course a fabled Hollywood siren, is radioactive with nostalgic associations, but not of the sort demanded here.)
You're best off approaching the production as an erratically entertaining variation on ''Stage Door,'' the 1936 Kaufman-Ferber play about life in a theatrical boarding house. Here, too, an assortment of self-dramatizing actresses squabble, comfort and face off. The essential difference, of course, is that the actresses of ''Stage Door'' had futures; those in ''Wings'' have only their pasts.
This isn't as melancholy a spectacle as might be anticipated, although Mr. Langham and Mr. Sams seem exasperatingly unwilling to strike a sure tone. The evening begins with the interpolated scene of a covered body on a stretcher being hustled through the parlor of the Wings (designed with appropriately frayed coziness by Ray Klausen). It's a jolting moment, never referred to in subsequent dialogue, establishing expectations of a bold gallows humor the production then fails to pursue.
Indeed, in many ways, Coward's original script has been softened, with the elimination of its most intensely dramatic scenes: the discovery of a fire set by a delusionary resident (gleefully played by Ms. Stenborg) and an onstage death. This shifts the focus more pointedly to the friction between May and Lotta Bainbridge (Ms. Bacall), an actress of comparable star status and the latest arrival at the Wings.
May and Lotta haven't spoken to each other in 30 years, for reasons only gradually revealed, and what central plot ''Wings'' has involves the broaching of this silence and Lotta's adjustment to her alien surroundings. Unfortunately, Ms. Bacall seems an outsider here in ways that go beyond the script. There's an aggressively American air of modernity about her that extends even to her costumes (designed by Alvin Colt).
She also only rarely relaxes into her lines. She can neatly land a Cowardesque zinger (''I'm positively bristling with olive branches''), and she unbends charmingly in an impromptu dance sequence. But there's an anxious sense of effort that comes not from Lotta, but from the actress playing her. And the night I saw ''Wings,'' Ms. Bacall's unscripted reversal of pronouns in an exchange with Ms. Harris had the audience wondering if it had missed some bizarre turn of plot.
Thank heaven Ms. Harris is on hand to give the evening its essential core of sentiment. Not that she does it entirely alone. In addition to the performers cited above, there is Patricia Conolly, who captures exactly the wry pathos of a woman who never outgrew ingenue status. And Helena Carroll feasts deliciously on the lugubriousness of an Irish character actress who, as May recalls with barbed insight, ''never played a scene the same way twice.''
One should also mention the redoubtable Dana Ivey, who portrays the Wings's brusque but kindly superintendent with outsize military gusto. And Simon Jones is effortlessly touching as her lieutenant, a middle-aged boy of a man and, quite understandably, the pet of the ladies in retirement.
The evening's most poignant moments, however, belong to an actor who is only briefly onstage. That's Barnard Hughes, the Tony-winning star of ''Da,'' who here appears as Osgood Meeker, an octogenarian swain to an (unseen) actress now nearing 100, with whom he first fell in love as a stage door johnny 60-some years earlier.
Clutching a bouquet of violets like a religious offering and speaking of times past with the solemn awe of a stage-struck youth, Mr. Hughes's Osgood becomes the very embodiment of the singular, enduring spell that a great stage actress can cast on her audiences.
When a young visitor to the Wings (Crista Moore) remarks that the object of Osgood's affections was said to have not had much of a voice, he answers with goosebump-making gravity, ''She hadn't much of anything, really, except magic.'' Ms. Harris and Mr. Hughes reassure us that such magic isn't only a thing of the past.
Somewhere, sipping a celestial cocktail perhaps, Noel Coward is smiling. Thursday marked the 100th anniversary of the famed British playwright and performer's birth, and in celebration, Coward is posthumously receiving the kind of birthday present that would have pleased him most: a hit show. That this gift should come in the guise of one of his later, most roundly dismissed plays, 1960's "Waiting in the Wings," makes the triumph all the sweeter.
It's a victory against significant odds. "Waiting" was harshly panned by London critics upon its West End debut. To read the reviews "was like being slashed repeatedly in the face," as Coward vividly put it. He always had doubted the American appeal of a play about a home for retired English actresses, and "Waiting" never made it to New York after its disappointing London run.
Early Boston reviews of the current Broadway production, headlined by Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris, were no less dire. But in a reversal that seems, aptly enough, to bring back a bygone Broadway era, "Waiting" arrives in Gotham in wonderful shape. Director Michael Langham and playwright Jeremy Sams, who is credited rather obscurely with "revisiting" Coward's play, have molded the production into a charming showcase for a tremendously gifted cast, including a dozen or so actresses "of a certain age" who contribute funny, affecting and meticulously defined performances that turn a slick but trifling piece of writing into a rewarding evening of theater.
A half-hour judiciously has been lopped off the play's Boston running time. What's left, in any case, isn't really vintage Coward. "Waiting" is the 1960 equivalent of a situation comedy. Coward assembles a cast of diversely typed characters, in this case retired English actresses and their caretakers, and sets them down in a closed environment, a charity home called the Wings.
As the ladies reminisce, chatter and wisecrack, you can feel the playwright floundering for a plot, and settling for a trio of subplots: the feud between longtime resident May Davenport (Harris) and new arrival Lotta Bainbridge (Bacall); the ladies' cherished desire to build a solarium, and the undercover journalist who ruffles their feathers but ultimately comes to their aid; and the rapprochement between Lotta and her estranged son Alan (Anthony Cummings). (The play congeals painfully in the second act around the latter vignette.)
There are lines in "Waiting" that are merely second-rate recyclings of previous Cowardisms, as when Lotta dismisses Toronto as "terribly Canadian." But there are also fresher ones: "Give her a door and she'll go through it," cracks one resident of May's grand way with an exit. And even at less than his best, Coward was a playwright of superior taste, wit and feeling. Those attributes are amply displayed in "Waiting," which gently skirts stereotypes and treads lightly outside the door of sentimentality -- only occasionally poking its head in for a look.
Most useful here is Coward's ability to create distinct characters with just a few brush strokes. An actor himself, Coward knew what must be put on the page and what could safely be left to the talents of the performer. And so, with sometimes mere minutes of stage time, the expertly assembled cast of this production turns virtually every role into a precise, vividly realized portrait.
In the most overtly comic part, Helena Carroll is marvelous as a truculent Irishwoman stomping stolidly around the drawing room and confidently predicting doom at every turn. Slightly less acerbic, but also superbly drawn, is Rosemary Murphy's Cora Clarke, dryly deflating others' attempts at optimism. Archie, the ex-Army battle ax who runs the home, is played with vigorous, zesty affection by Dana Ivey, who movingly undercuts Archie's martial ways with quiet intimations of deep sympathy with her charges.
The sunnier residents of the Wings include Patricia Connolly's endearingly cheerful and gently touching Maudie Melrose, hopping to the piano whenever it's called for, and seemingly forever reliving a latter-day triumph in something called "Miss Mouse." (The red dye that clings desperately to the tips of Maudie's gray hair has a pathos all its own, a lovely touch from wig and hair designer Mitch Ely.) The ever-fine Elizabeth Wilson's Bonita Belgrave likewise turns a stalwart face to the world, attempting endlessly to turn Bette Henritze's woeful Almina Clare away from the recollection that it is she who instigated the desire for a solarium that obsesses the ladies.
Helen Stenborg is riveting in her two scenes of high humor as the doddering, pyromaniacal Sarita Myrtle. Sarita is almost entirely lost in the past now, imagining her companions to be co-stars. "It's been a lovely engagement," she says with a gentle, faintly patronizing tone as she is taken away to a sanitarium.
Emerging variously in all of these performances are the vestiges of the prides and vanities of the ladies' professional years as well as their uncertain glances at the ultimate curtain call that awaits.
There's plenty of technique brought to bear on these portraits in miniature, but there may be something else at work, too. Roles for "mature" actresses in Broadway plays are scarce indeed (on our teen-obsessed TV screens, of course, they're all but extinct). And so these women seem to be distilling a lifetime of experience, study and pleasure in their craft into these performances, turning them into small but indelible treasures that remain strangely incandescent in the memory.
Headliners Bacall and Harris certainly have their work cut out for them on a stage enlivened by such fine work, which also includes excellent turns by Barnard Hughes, Simon Jones, Amelia Campbell and Crista Moore (playing the invading journo, and rising above a costume that makes her look like a human riding crop).
Bacall meets the challenge mostly by coasting on her indisputable star presence. To be fair, her role is a fairly bland one, and Bacall uses her inimitable, chilly drawl to powerhouse effect on some of Coward's crisper witticisms. Elsewhere she relies on line readings that emphasize the generic contours of her dialogue. She is best, paradoxically, in the play's deadliest scene, a cliche-ridden emotional tug of war between Lotta and her son (Cummings looks as if he knows how thankless his role is).
Harris, a performer of innately regal presence, also can communicate a grave sort of warmth, and those characteristics are perfectly suited to her role here as an actress of punctilious dignity in reduced circumstances. She is marvelously economical, using the finest of inflections to suggest May's changing attitudes toward Lotta, who she believes stole her husband three decades back. And Harris' endlessly eloquent elocution can turn the tiniest fragments of Coward's pleasingly absurd dialogue -- "Why a zither?" to be precise -- into a comic essay.
Harris' eminently graceful turn is emblematic of Langham's production, which is full of thoughtful touches -- the water stain on the ceiling of Ray Klausen's cozy set, for instance, bespeaks careful affection for the play's kindly virtues, which were easy to overlook in an age dazzled by the more aggressive ones of Osborne, Pinter and Beckett.
A minor work from a comic master, the play is a formulaic but nonetheless heartfelt tribute to the art of the actress, and in their thoughtful, immensely spirited performances, the actresses of Broadway's "Waiting in the Wings" pay equally heartfelt tribute to Coward himself.