If your only knowledge of Noel Coward came from this production of "Oh Coward!" you easily could imagine him an insufferable snob perpetually standing in a smoking jacket, leaning on a mantle, making cutting remarks about everyone in sight. You never would imagine he wrote and directed the four-handkerchief film classic "Brief Encounter" or that he had written innumerable songs that also could move you to tears. You wouldn't guess he was one of the great theatrical minds of the century.
Everything about this production is so stiff, so arch, that you come away with the image of Coward he had at the low point of his career, in the aftermath of World War II.
In those bitter years, his efforts at morale building during the war were forgotten. He was thought of only as the symbol of frivolity he had been during the '20s.
What is odd about this production is that it is directed by and stars the same man who conceived it 14 years ago, Roderick Cook. Back then, it seemed a tribute to Coward. Now it conveys only stereotyped, two-dimensional impressions that quickly grow tiresome.
Part of the problem is the dry musical arrangements, which minimize the emotional and dramatic possibilities of the songs. More often than not, the performers phrase the music off-handedly, like nightclub singers aiming for aloofness. Cook is the most convincing of the actors, but he has been doing this material so long he has lost the vivacity and charm he used to bring to it. Now it seems like a parody of a parody, merely a set of mannerisms.
When she was in "Baby," Catherine Cox exuded warmth and enthusiasm. Here she seems antiseptic and campy, as if she were one of those vacant-eyed, flamingo-like women you see in Edward Gorey's Victorian etchings.
She sings the heartbreaking "If Love Were All" so coolly that it has no impact at all, and a set of English music hall numbers with so little zest we have no sense of the "common touch" in Coward that balanced his sometimes severe sophistication.
Patrick Quinn is the most mannered of the trio. He and Cox do not seem secure in their English accents. As if to compensate, he sometimes supplements his lines with tossings of the head, which only serves to underline that sense that Coward was all affectation.
Everything about the show is underdone except a comic song "Nina," which Quinn overdoes to the point of embarrassment.
The sets and costumes give the impression of a provincial English theater on a tight budget. Only the lighting conveys any variety of mood.
Cook's direction is so lifeless that everything comes to sound alike. Even "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," which so captivated a generation that Churchill and Roosevelt argued about it during one of their wartime meetings, doesn't seem funny at all.
Cook has reduced Coward's "talent to amuse" to genteel tepidness. That can't have been his intention when he first did the show. Neither Cook nor Coward come off well in this edition.
Noel Coward was a nimble genius: quick with a lyric, deft with a rhyme, and with an unexpected gift for sentiment.
Unexpected? Not really. Cynics are often sentimentalists turned inside out, and Coward's witty cynicism, unlike Oscar Wilde's, was usually merely acerbic irony. He was kinder than he thought.
But most of all, Coward was a dramatist or, at his rare least, a theatrician, which means a man of the theater with electric input.
Like Schubert, he tended to write songs that were self-contained stories, with no context other than the life Coward sought to live, and the people Coward sought to amuse.
As a result, that legacy - the Noel Coward songbook - has proved a rich trove for people searching out a theatrical revue. A few years ago there was "Cowardly Custard" in London, which for some reason never made the crossing.
Probably because, in 1972 on this side of the Atlantic, a gifted fellow named Roderick Cook came up with his own tribute to the Master, whose good will he had.
In 1972 this two-man, one-woman revue, "Oh Coward!," enjoyed a spectacular success Off-Broadway, running 294 performances. Now, with last night's opening at the Helen Hayes Theater, it has finally come to Broadway.
Its success deserves to be no less spectacular. Noel Coward is not a man whose time has come. His time has never gone away.
At this moment "Oh Coward!" is as welcome as a breath of spring in the Gobi desert. It has lost nothing over the years, and a new generation can now wallow and giggle in the multifarious glories that were Coward.
Still devised and directed by Cook, who also stars in it, the show itself is totally unchanged - except, of course, the topical mentions dragged into Coward's own precedent-setting treatment of Cole Porter's "Let's Do It."
I must admit I had the impression that the settings - by Helen Pond and Herbert Senn - were a little grander now than then, but I must also admit that my impression may be mistaken.
Certainly the spirit remains unchanged and unabated - and what a very good spirit it is. Cook never spoils Coward's broth.
He has done a masterly job at arranging the show, finding just the right balance between comedy and sentiment (sensibly, he goes heavy on the comedy, and in putting just the right songs in the right place at the right time.)
There is no heavy-handed biography - the commentary is kept to mercifully bare bones - and the few brief anecdotes and jokes, including the naughty one about the Queen of Tonga, are crisp, dry, and express-delivered with asperity.
The show, as it should be, is a panoply or garland of songs - some wreathed themes like London or love, others, including that stern imprecationary warning to Mrs. Worthington, offered without any thematic apology.
The tempo of the evening is unflagging, the wit is as crackling as martini ice, and, of course - so potent, this cheap Coward! - the melody lingers on.
The original trio of performers - Barbara Cason, Jamie Ross, and Cook himself - were selected, presumably, as archetypal Cowardian figures like Beatrice Lillie, Graham Payn, and Coward himself.
The new threesome, Catherine Cox, Patrick Quinn, and, once more, Cook, are every bit as archetypal as their predecessors.
In Cox, as arch as Lillie, as coy as Joyce Grenfell, and as exuberant as Elaine Stritch, the trio has a distinct plus. Cox is a special delight.
Quinn conveys just the right boyish seediness for the hearty and funny Coward juvenile, and Cook is Cook.
His dry, whimsical, pixie-like presence, as chirpy and urbane as a blase sparrow, is quite exquisitely perfect.
So here it is. "Oh Coward!" Oh Goody! This Cowardly little lion brings a much needed fun, wit, sophistication, and chic back to Broadway.
Sir Noel Coward's talent to amuse came in diverse guises - from three-act comedies to autobiographies to offstage repartee - but he was perhaps at his wittiest in his theater songs. The musical anthology ''Oh Coward!,'' which was revived last night at the Helen Hayes Theater, demonstrates this linguistic limberness, Sir Noel's ability to match words with music behind a screen of wry emotional detachment.
First presented Off Broadway in 1972, the show is a collage of songs, excerpts from his plays and books and memorable lines from a richly theatricalized life. As conceived, adapted and directed by Roderick Cook, ''Oh Coward!'' defines the label ''special material.'' It is an evening of incidental pleasures.
Mr. Cook himself is back on stage, leading two new colleagues, Catherine Cox and Patrick Quinn, in tempering their ebullience. The performance is determinedly low-key and genteel, in keeping with its source. Neither in the selection of material nor in the performances does the show overstep into self-parody, as is often the case in other musical anthologies. As before, Mr. Cook lets Coward speak and sing for himself, which he does, trippingly.
The dapper Mr. Cook looks and sounds enough like his role model to assure one that the late composer is not too distant. When the actor sings ''The Party's Over Now'' and tells us how marvelous that party was, not a hint of a smile creases his lips, which are firmly fixed in morning-after regret.
Mr. Cook's colleagues are aptly chosen. Wrapping herself in a white boa, Miss Cox is a tall gamin, with an expressive face and a clownish personality. Mr. Quinn, as suited to formal attire as Mr. Cook, cuts a suave leading-man figure. All three actors behave and sing in a dry Coward fashion. The aura they create is that of an elegant party at which guests, without coaxing, take their turns at performing for their friends.
The range of the songs is, as one remembers, narrow but stylish and very actable. Primarily there are two furrows - sprightly English music-hall tunes such as ''Mrs. Worthington,'' who still has to be encouraged to keep her daughter off the stage, and sardonic salutes to well-traveled Coward societies. In those latter circles, the most identifiable attitudes are those of snobbery and ennui, a feeling of deadpan deja vu.
The ballads have a bittersweet aftertaste, as in ''If Love Were All,'' the number (sung by Miss Cox) in which Coward confessed his own limitations. Though the songs, sketches and badinage are drawn from a life's work, there is little sense of evolution or of mellowing with age. One has to conclude that Coward never changed - from the time soon after the turn of the century when he invented himself as a virtuoso of popular culture. Self-knowledge did not necessarily guarantee self-doubt. The Coward response, in his diaries as well as in public, was to sidestep seriousness. He apparently took the advice of his lyric, ''When life gets difficult - sail away.''
In the years since Mr. Cook first put his revue together, the show has not been appreciably altered. The musical arranger and the set designers are the same, though there seems to be a bit more scenery on stage. Two pianos, a drum and a bass are heard but not seen. On Broadway or off, this remains basically a cabaret show. As in the author's self-description, the evening is ''so nonchalant and frightfully debonair.'' ''Oh Coward!'' scrupulously minds its manners.