English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer Noel Coward is considered by many to have been one of the 20th century’s cleverest wits. When it came to social commentary, his insight was spot-on, as evidenced by the writing in his series of one-acts in “Tonight at 8:30.”
“It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely,” was a love song written by friend Cole Porter—though Mr. Coward did sing it on occasion—but the words could also be applied to the three vignettes directed by Tony Walton and now staging at Guild Hall in East Hampton.
The crisp dialogue was witty and sparkling, as one expects it to be when written by Mr. Coward. And the stories, written back in the early 1930s, still hold up today.
Originally written as a series of 10 one-acts to be performed over successive days, “Tonight” contains some real gems, including the three shorts selected by Mr. Walton, which star Blythe Danner, Simon Jones and a very solid supporting cast.
This reviewer’s hands-down favorite was “Hands Across the Sea,” a nine-character piece which could have easily taken place in many an East End home today. It’s a quick and biting study of social mores and snobbery.
Ms. Danner breathed believable and watchable—if maybe not all that likable—life into her character, Lady Maureen Gilpin. “Piggie” as she is called (natch), has found herself stuck in a seemingly interminable situation when a less-socially-successful couple from abroad—Gerard Doyle and Kate Mueth as the Wadhursts—accepts an invitation to visit her and her husband, Commander Peter Gilpin, played with an adept and amusing touch by Mr. Jones.
Instead of just being gracious for 30 minutes, she instead busies herself with taking numerous telephone calls and gossiping with her posh friends—Delphi Harrington, James Lawson and Tuck Milligan as a prominent socialite, a lieutenant commander and a major—as if the increasingly uncomfortable guests (which also include Bobby Peterson and Tina Jones as the almost entirely ignored Burnham and Walters) weren’t present.
After the easy to relate to Wadhursts, played so humorously by Ms. Mueth and Mr. Doyle, dejectedly make their escape, Piggie says something along the lines of “I don’t believe they noticed,” her incredible rudeness. Ah, what an interesting scene to view here in the middle of the season.
“Family Album” is another strong ensemble piece. This one-act takes place right after the reading of a patriarch’s will.
All the expected things happen when the ruler of a dynasty expires, but the story is told winningly by the words and the actors. Nice work by Mr. Mulligan here as the elderly Burrows. Ms. Jones and Andrew Botsford also earn their moments to shine alongside Ms. Danner, Mr. Jones, Ms. Harrington, Mr. Doyle and Mr. Lawson.
“Red Peppers” is the funniest sketch, but also the saddest in many ways. It’s about entertainers who are quickly becoming has-beens. This piece stars Mr. Jones, Ms. Danner, Mr. Milligan, Mr. Doyle, Ms. Harrington and Mr. Peterson, who makes his mark here on the piano.
Though the words are the stars of any Noel Coward play, the stage set at Guild Hall is also a marvel. It’s no surprise, as the Tony- Academy Award- and Emmy-winning Mr. Walton made his bones in the theater as a set and costume designer.
The first thing this reviewer saw upon entering the John Drew Theater was a drawing of Mr. Coward’s smiling face, sprouting wings, flying directly over center stage and looking as if he were beaming down his blessing at the performers. The black-and-white set, accented in rich red relief, matched the luxury and sophistication of the first two acts, which could be referred to as “drawing room” comedies, while punctuating the broader third.
Bottom line: There’s a lightness and airiness about all of the pieces, which translates into an evening of fun. Sometimes pointed and snobby, other times falsely cheery and maudlin, and also purposefully hammy, hokey and jokey in parts, “Tonight at 8:30” is a delicious and delightful evening at the theater.
Noel Coward’s “Tonight at 8:30” stages at Guild Hall in East Hampton Tuesdays through Sundays through August 4. Tickets start at $40. Reservations are required. For tickets and additional information, call the box office at 324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.
Correction: In last week’s preview story about “Tonight at 8:30,” it was stated that Mr. Walton lives in East Hampton. He and his wife, Gen LeRoy, live in Manhattan and have been staying in East Hampton for the play’s run. Additionally, the name of Orson Welles’s lighting designer, Abe Feder, was omitted from a quote. The corrected version can be read in its entirety online at 27east.com.