“It's great fun,” said “Fallen Angels” director Art Manke, back on his home turf in Los Angeles after helming recent productions of “The Three Musketeers” at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and “Sense and Sensibility” at Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
“Coward was quite a renegade in that he was interested in expanding society's views of the boundaries of human relationships,” and “Fallen Angels” (along with “Private Lives,” “Design for Living” and other early Coward plays) “was groundbreaking at the time,” Manke said. The idea that two married women “could even entertain the idea of visiting with a gentleman with whom they both had had an affair prior to marriage really was shocking.
“Yet the issues still exist today,” he added, “and that's what makes it universal and interesting for a modern audience. Ultimately, I think the play looks at the true nature of commitment and whether you can be friends with an old lover and not have it disrupt your marriage.”
The works of Noël Coward have become a specialty for the multiple-award-winning Manke, as they have been for the Playhouse over its long history. Manke's previous Coward outings at the theater include the 2005 production of “Private Lives” and the American premiere of Coward's “Star Quality” in 2003.
“It's great to have Art back again,” said Playhouse Artistic Director Sheldon Epps. “He is a real master of these plays of style. He knows how to bring out the wit and fun of them, but he also gets to the heart and soul of the material.”
Noël Coward's plays, Epps said, “in addition to being incredibly clever and witty, touch on some pretty deep human emotions: jealousy, envy … and love, of course. He is often accused of being facile, but I think that this is only because people don't look below the surface to the ‘heart of Coward' that always drove his writing.”
Manke agrees. “With Coward, people immediately think of the glittering surface of the dialogue and the sophisticated milieu. To me, what is interesting is to get together with a group of really smart actors and say, what are the emotional stakes and what is the real humanity underneath it all?
“It's also a rare look at a play that hasn't been seen in a long time,” he said, due to the fact that the American rights to “Fallen Angels” had been held by producer Bill Kenwright, who had presented a West End production of the play starring Frances de la Tour and Felicity Kendal in 2000 and who had planned a New York production “that never materialized,” Manke said. An inquiry to the Noël Coward Foundation garnered approval for the Playhouse to produce the play in 2009, but that production fell through due to what Epps refers to as “our brief intermission”: the bankruptcy that shuttered the Playhouse in February of 2010 followed by the theater's swift reopening in October that same year.
“So, I am very happy that we are mounting it now,” Epps said. “Fallen Angels” provides “the kind of contrast to other things in our season that make our work tremendously eclectic. And,” he joked, “I think that just about any time is the right time for a play about romantic entanglements and girls behaving badly.”
Or, as Manke puts it, despite the deeper issues that may roil the play's frothy surface, “Fallen Angels” is “a bit like a sophisticated version of an ‘I Love Lucy' episode, with the two wives getting up to mischief and hi-jinks.”
To find their way into Coward's vividly defined world of witty repartee and sophisticated manners, Manke and his actors began with “a tremendous amount of research.” Careful casting, too, was essential. “I'm working with actors who are not only skilled with this kind of material, the British dialect, the elegance of it all and the intelligence,” Manke said, “but they come at it with the emotional capacity to tap into something beyond the surface.”
The play's leading ladies are Pamela J. Gray, whose credits include the FX series “Sons of Anarchy” and Roundabout Theatre's Broadway revival of Noël Coward's “Present Laughter,” and Katie MacNichol (Julie Taymor's “The Green Bird” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”). Rounding out the cast of solid stage and screen professionals are Elijah Alexander as disruptive lover Maurice, Loren Lester and Mike Ryan as the discomfited husbands and Mary-Pat Green as Saunders, “one of the great Coward maids of all time,” Manke said.
“Coward was way ahead of his time in creating women's roles,” Manke observed. A strong advocate of women's rights, Coward created “independent female characters separate from their spouses [at a time when] women weren't independent human beings in the eyes of the law.” The husbands in “Fallen Angels” represent “the typical Victorian husbands who looked at their wives as a piece of property and as someone to take care of the home,” Manke said, while French ex-lover Maurice espouses “the European view that you can have more than one lover at a time, and that a marriage can exist very well, even if you have liaisons outside of it.
“So there's a bit of conflict between the views of the men in the play as well as with the women.”
The fact that the multifaceted playwright/songwriter/actor/director was a gay man who wasn't “out” publicly also contributed to the sense of breaking societal boundaries and the defying of expectations that shaped Coward's plays, Manke said.
“I think that is how he expressed that part of himself in his work. You see it most obviously in ‘Design for Living' where this ménage à trois exists. You see it in the free-spirited theatrical types in ‘Present Laughter' and in ‘Hay Fever.' It occurs throughout the plays, just in more subtle variations than one might see in a gay playwright today.”
The “Fallen Angels” production design is in the hands of a slate of top-tier veterans: set designer Tom Buderwitz, costume designer David K. Mickelsen, lighting designer Peter Maradudin and sound designer Steven Cahill.
Music by Coward is “sort of sprinkled around the play,” Manke said, including “Even Angels Fall,” a song in French that was never published but is referred to in “Fallen Angels. “It hasn't been heard for decades,” said Manke, who tracked down a copy.
The Pasadena Playhouse has mounted nearly 80 productions of works by Noël Coward, beginning with “Hay Fever” in 1926. A telegram from the playwright to Playhouse founder Gilmor Brown regarding the theater's lavish 1934 U.S. premiere of Coward's “Cavalcade” is a prized memento in the theater's archives.
“That's one of the things that's so great about working here,” Manke said. “There is such a history, and you feel that you're part of that lineage.”
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: Opens 5 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 3. Regular schedule: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Feb. 24. $22 to $62; premium seating, $100. (Rush tickets available for $20 one hour before performance time at the box office, subject to availability.)
More info: (626) 356-7529, pasadenaplayhouse.org
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.