All Things Entertaining and Cultural
A tone of tasteful sophistication is set the minute you enter Villanova’s Vasey Theatre and see the elegant deco furnishings designer, Paris Bradley, and director, Rev. David Cregan, have chosen for Julia and Fred Sterroll’s London sitting and dining rooms, circa 1925, in Noel Coward’s “Fallen Angels.”
The magnificent (and much-envied) sofa, found I hear on e-Bay and imported from New York’s Chelsea, is enough to impress. Bradley goes further with a beautiful parquet floor, perfect tables and lamps, and a magenta back wall stenciled with a repeating white pattern that looks like abstract birds in flight or starbursts and that makes you rethink the contemporary penchant for simple painting instead of opting for bold, exciting designs.
Cregan adds to the striking milieu by having pertinent Coward tunes, “Mad About the Boy” and “World Weary” among them, playing on what sounds like a period wireless, some sung by The Master (Coward) himself.
All of these astute touches prepare you for the play to come.
Oh, darn, I’ve gotten so carried away with Bradley’s design, I almost forgot to mention there’s a play.
The tone for it is also set well as Rebecca Cureton, as Julia, literally sails on stage, one arm raised for emphasis, the skirt of her dress billowing in the wake of her lively step, while Mitchell Bloom’s Fred looks commanding and smart in golf togs, the pants tweed, baggy, and cinched at mid-calf, where stockings take over.
Cureton, Bloom, and costumer Janus Stefanowicz keep the spirit of elegance and stylishness going. Stefanowicz will continually make you admire the gowns and handsome, well-cut suits in which she dresses Coward’s characters. The actors provide even more pleasure in their playing of them.
“Fallen Angels” is not an easy play to do. It revolves around a single situation given some texture by a discussion Julia has with Fred and with her best friend, Jane Banbury, early on about loving as opposed to being in love. The monolithic subject matter, whether Julia and Jane will be called by a mutual flame, a Frenchman with whom each had a romantic fling before either was married, can become quickly monotonous if the actors, Cureton and Jill Jacobs as Jane, don’t find enough variety in the conversation and jealous bickering Coward provides for his play’s first two acts.
Luckily for the Villanova audience, Cureton and Jacobs keep their dialogue frothy, Cureton maintaining the grand, florid style and intrinsically dramatic bent she shows upon entrance, Jacobs being just as animated but more down-to-earth and less punctilious in her speech and manner.
Coward, confident though he was as a playwright and entertainer, takes a big risk in keeping his plot so one-note. It has to be taxing for Cureton, Jabobs, and Cregan to sustain an atmosphere of upper crust sophistication when all conversation and motivation is centered on whether the erstwhile lover, Maurice Duclos, will telephone or arrive suddenly at Julia’s door before Fred and Jane’s husband, Willy, return home from their golf weekend.
Jane is staying with Julia for the night their husbands will be away. At first, they go through the usual friend’s banter, gossip, marital grousing and such, that Coward writes crisply enough. Then Jane produces a post card from Maurice announcing he will be in London and longs to see her. Jane’s card is from Capri, the scene of her pre-Willy tryst with Maurice. Julia trumps Jane with a card of her own, from Pisa, site of her flagrante, bearing a similar message from Maurice about eagerness to reunite.
The women are beside themselves with anticipation and expectation. They share the thrill of their adventures with Maurice, although each knows of the other’s affair, as Julia and Jane have been friends since before they met their husbands. As must happen, because Coward has to do something to move “Fallen Angels,” and Cregan and company must have something new to give their audience, a rivalry develops.
Coward is coy. He begins the testier part of Julia and Jane’s evening slowly by having the women talk about how their husbands would react if they knew about Maurice and, more importantly in 1925, that both women’s relationship with him included coitus. All of a sudden, a tide turns, and Julia and Jane become suspicious of one another. They aren’t concerned about which may have had the better time with Maurice or whose romance was the more meaningful. They become consumed with an idea that Maurice may have communicated with one of them and is planning a London sequel to Italian bliss that doesn’t include the other.
Cureton and Jacobs have done well at keeping the standard badinage lively enough to get to this point at which they have something real and tangible to play, a catfight between friends who would never go to battle over their husbands but will engage in fierce combat, forgoing all semblance of class or gentility, over which of them eclipses the other in Maurice’s affection and which, if either is plotting to deceive the other by rendezvousing with Maurice alone.
Now the rumpus starts, the kind that ends with pulled hair and potential damage done to the gorgeous ensembles in which Stefanowicz has caparisoned the ladies.
Cureton’s Julia is shrewd. As the hostess, she has a chance to ply Jane with liquor while imbibing quite a quantity of champagne herself. This leads to a drunken confrontation throughout which Jane is particularly blotto.
Coward loves this kind of scene, and Cureton and Jabobs are up to its challenges. They lead up to intoxication subtly. As is real life, there’s that abrupt turning point that takes one from being high and exuberant to soused and deadly.
In the manner libations will effect, tongues and tempers become sharper and more strategically aimed. The slow build to inebriation has reached a peak so high, the women cannot stay together in one house. One must flee, the other suspecting she knows where Maurice is and is heading to his arms for solace and ooh la la.
The challenge to the Villanova crew — Cureton, Jacobs, and Cregan — is to keep the build-up, the rivalry, and the drunken contretemps from becoming tedious and too much of one kind. Most of the productions I’ve seen of “Fallen Angels,” and other Coward plays, succumb to the constant need to keep everything fresh when nothing significantly changes.
Even new beats of conversations tend to sound like more of the same. Often, the actors and the audience seem to be biding time waiting for the denouement to relieve the sameness.
This does not happen at Villanova. Yes, there are occasional dips in the interest level. Coward covers identical ground often enough for an audience to long for some change. Cureton and Jacobs have the energy and vocal skill to jump that hurdle.
However Coward may bog down a plot, he will always supply enough truly funny lines to help his cast carry the day.
Cureton and Jacobs maintain the intelligence of sophistication of their characters, so Coward’s talent to amuse with clever ripostes comes across as Julia or Jane’s natural wit. The women are not trying to be funny, but they often want to be cutting or sarcastic, and Cureton and Jacobs are adept at making Coward’s comments, subtle or bitchy, sound as if they were thought up on the spot by a clever, purposelful, verbally prepared individual instead of gag lines supplied by a deft comedian.
This makes a great difference. A good joke breaks much ice. The beauty is Cureton and Jacobs can keep “Fallen Angels” hopping so nimbly, you don’t just sit and wait for the next programmed laugh but listen to all of the dialogue and savor the humor as it so consistently comes.
Cregan has helped his actresses by giving their characters distinct looks and attitudes. Julia, who makes a point of being a brunette, is grand in every gesture and uncontrollably dramatic. Everything is of vital interest to her. Her flair for the large impression keeps all matters immediate. Cureton’s Julia is never casual or mildly curious. She is in a constant flurry, her accent crisp and perhaps a tad overly cultivated, her movements fluid, helped by the lovely and flowing floor-length, diaphanous, green-printed coat Stefanowicz gives her to wear loosely over her burnt orange evening dress.
Cureton’s Julia is always “on.” She can be cunning, as when she plies Jane with glass after glass of champagne, but she never relaxes or gives up being quite the theatrical, if stylish, lady. Cureton’s perpetual animation fuels this production. Her intensity level even manages to enliven a scene at the top of Coward’s third act (the production’s second), when Julia is alone on the sofa reading a newspaper.
Jill Jacobs is forthcoming, rather than being subdued, as Jane, but her approach is softer and less histrionic than Cureton’s. Jane is as involved and interested in all the gossip and reminiscences of Maurice as Julia is. She’s just less effusive in her manner and expression.
Jacobs’s milder presence creates a good contrast that provides levels in emotion without slowing or relaxing Cregan’s pace. Her Jane is confident and enjoys fantasizing about a meeting with Maurice.
Both women have already discussed how five years of marriage have affected their feelings towards their husbands. Julia begins the conversation with Fred, who is a bit put out that Julia claims to love him but to be past the romantic sentimentality of being in love with him. Jane takes up where Fred leaves off, and the characters’ conclusion is there’s some welcome peace in being settled and past the wistful period of a relationship.
Of course, their sensible practicality goes out the window when talk of Maurice begins. Julia and Jane’s husbands represent comfortable stability and reliable companionship. Maurice once again symbolizes romance, his French manners and the Italian landscapes of the dalliances, adding steam to already percolating ardor. Both women remain definitely in love with him.
Julia and Jane’s pining dialogue about Maurice can only be halted by so many calls on the telephone or callers at the door. Coward shrewdly provides comic relief in the character of Julia’s maid, Saunders, a woman of vast study and experience who has an idea or solution about everything. She even plays a skillful piano, speaks impeccable French, and sings in a ringing but solid soprano.
Christine Mandracchia plays this character perfectly, eking every soupçon of comic possibility from her by maintaining a servile deadpan that crumbles into exuberance when Saunders gets the chance to show off some arcane, but salient, nugget of knowledge or launch into an aria.
Sequences featuring Mandracchia’s Saunders often occur in the nick of time when even a “Fallen Angels” as vibrant as Cregan’s desperately needs a bridge between Julia and Jane’s volley of conversation.
“Fallen Angels” is a marathon of waiting for something to happen. You begin to anticipate and long for Maurice’s appearance as much as Julia and Jane do. And not just to satisfy your curiosity about how handsome and romantic he is, but to see if his presence alters the plot or dialogue in any significant way.
Thank goodness Cureton, Jacobs, and Mandracchia work so harmoniously as a trio. They keep Cregan’s production buoyant and make us happily hang on each response, even when the women’s dialogue becomes insular or inane.
The re-entrance of the men, including Maurice, gives Coward’s third act enough variation to carry us to “Fallen Angels’s” rather delicious ending.
Mitchell Bloom is remarkable throughout the play. In the beginning, he is a good foil to Julia, parrying well with her maunderings about love vs. being in love and pouting in jest as he makes a case for continuing affection.
Bloom gives a lesson in Cowardian acting when he returns from his golf excursion in the third act. His Fred Sterroll is the picture of the civilized, cosmopolitan man, beautifully dressed with splendid manners and a way of speaking and moving that combines breeding, cultivation, and strength.
Bloom knows how to be masculine while being a gentleman. Even at moments when his character is flummoxed by some confusion or some wonder about Maurice, Bloom allows Fred a momentary cold glare or high-stepping double take, but reverts quickly to the Astairish man who is not easily flustered or nonplussed.
Bloom’s performance is elegant while remaining decidedly comic. His Fred exudes confidence and competence while revealing a wonderful sense of humor, even in response to Coward’s naughty ending to “Fallen Angels.”
Kyle Fennie is a stalwart Willy, more skeptical and miffed than Fred about his wife’s attitude towards Maurice, but sturdy in a businesslike way. Willy, like Jane, is more conventional than either of the Sterrolls. He is less polished, less refined, but he comes across as a reliable friend you can count upon in a pinch.
Stephen Tornetta does not disappoint when he arrives at Maurice. Tornetta affects an ease, different from Bloom’s poise, that immediately informs you Maurice is fun and every bit as playful as Julia and Jane have given you to believe. He also has a way of looking at Julia and Jane with a sense of pleasure in his eyes. Tornetta lets you see Maurice’s intention to ravish his past lovers, and he provides the production with assurance and humor in its last moments.
Cregan and company surmount the dangerous pitfalls by which “Fallen Angels” threatens to stymie a director and his cast. The plays moves at an advantageous pace, has levels that give comedy and characterization a chance to breathe, and maintains an effervescent tone that does credit to Noel Coward.
This is a good and entertaining production of a potentially difficult piece, and all hands are to be congratulated including lighting designer Jerold R. Forsyth and sound designer John Stovicek. Cureton and Mandracchia are also to be cited by accompanying themselves on the piano, Mandracchia will great gusto.
“Fallen Angels” runs through Sunday, October 5 at Villanova’s Vasey Theatre, on the campus facing Lancaster Avenue just west of Ithan Avenue, in Villanova, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $25 to $21 and can be obtained by calling 610-519-7474 or by visiting www.villanovatheatre.org.