Coward in 2 Keys
Actress Hayley Mills finds No"l Coward deceptively simple. "There's that veneer of flippancy and [light-hearted] stiff-upper lip," she notes. "But beneath all that, the characters are facing very real issues."
She is specifically talking about her dual roles (both awash in flippancy and stiff upper lip) in Coward's "Suite in 2 Keys," two thematically interrelated short plays that bowed Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, April 10.
The plays-"Shadows of the Evening" and "A Song at Twilight"-examine several patrician Brits coming to terms with inevitable truths that will redefine their lives. The plays are set in a Swiss hotel suite, circa 1960. And, for Mills, that heady era almost takes on the dimension of an intrusive figure, shaping the action and challenging both the characters and the actors playing them.
"Although the plays take place in the '60s, the characters are products of the '40s and '50s," Mills says over the phone in her marked British accent. "They came of age in a period of extreme conventionality and are now in a world teetering on the brink of the sexual revolution. The barriers are coming down, but these characters are still occupying the world of the '40s and '50s. It must have been very difficult for people of that generation."
And, as Mills tells it, it's none too easy for millennium actors to put an emotional handle on these characters, either. Their values and lifestyles-not to mention life choices or, more to the point, lack thereof-are more than a little distant.
"These characters hold their feelings close to their chest and do not trust their emotions. Yes, that's very English, but it's not current," comments the London-born Mills, a former child star who has been in the business for more than four decades. "The acting challenge is to have the [traditional upper-crust British] reserve and at the same time suggest what's going on underneath.
"Both characters I play-Anne and Hilde-are tricky because their lives have been fully fashioned by outside forces. Yet I feel that Hilde-despite her German accent-is a little easier to do. At least she breaks out a bit at the end, revealing herself to Hugo. Anna, on the other hand, is so controlled. That makes her harder to play."
"Shadows of the Evening," an American premiere, centers on an encounter between a successful publisher (Paxton Whitehead), his long-term mistress (Judith Ivey), and his wife, Anna (Mills), forging an uneasy peace in the face of the philandering husband's terminal illness.
"A Song at Twilight" also looks at a triangle. This one tells the story of an eminent writer (Whitehead), his wife of 20 years, Hilde (Mills), and his ex-lover (Ivey), who threatens to release letters she owns revealing his closely guarded homosexuality. "Twilight" considers the cost of betrayal and secrets and, most significant, secrets revealed in an era when homosexuality was still a crime in England. The drama is allegedly inspired by the life of novelist W. Somerset Maugham and is perhaps autobiographical on Coward's part as well.
In both plays Mills inhabits long-suffering women (although Hilde is potentially volatile) who maintain marriages that have long-since died, assuming they ever existed. Anna and Hilde are embodiments of endurance and constancy. And, interestingly, Mills sees something "admirable" about the two women. They're "reliable."
In fact, Mills believes "A Song at Twilight" ends on a note of cautious optimism. "In their own way, Hilde and Hugo do love each other and you have the feeling that their relationship will go on, and probably be better than it ever was. For the first time in their marriage there has been some honesty. Neither has to hide anymore."
On- and offstage Mills is a far cry from the perky child-star image identified with such feel-good movies as "Pollyanna" (for which she earned a special Academy Award) and "The Parent Trap." In all fairness, Mills has had an extensive theatre background, starting with her famous actor-father, Sir John Mills. Her sister Juliet is a well-known English actress, and Hayley herself has starred on the West End, in such productions as "The Wild Duck," "The Three Sisters," and "Toys in the Attic," among many others. Playing Anna in "The King and I," Mills has toured the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. "Suite in 2 Keys" marks her New York debut.
She knows New York audiences might find the Coward plays a little dated. "I see something nostalgic here," Mills observes. "It brings to mind my parents' world. My mother was a very sophisticated woman, yet I still remember her whispering to me-I was a child at the time-that a couple who had come to visit were-" Mills interrupts herself to dramatize, lowering her voice conspiratorially " "not married.' Everyone knew they were living together, but they were"-(more meaningful whispering) "not married."
In the Blood
Thoughtful, affable, and eager to talk about her onstage choices, Mills makes it clear she has other interests and concerns as well. She is a scuba diver, a vegetarian, and an animal rights activist.
Still, acting is in Mills' blood. "It's second nature," she asserts, describing herself as a "studio kid," meaning she was frequently on hand when her father was shooting a film. But more to the point, "I became an actress before I even thought about what I'd be when I grew up."
Her career was launched at the age of 12 when her father's houseguest, the renowned director J. Lee Thompson, noticed young Hayley clowning around. So taken with her charm and spontaneity, Thompson decided she was the child to play a featured role in his new film "Tiger Bay," co-starring Sir John Mills. The rest is the stuff of fairy tales.
Hayley's appearance in the film led her to Walt Disney, who took her under his wing, turning her into an international child star in the late '50s and on into the '60s.
Mills looks back at that chapter in her life with modesty. "Acting is very natural for children. After all, they're always pretending to be someone else anyway. And for me it was an easy step from watching my father to doing it myself. In those early years, I was given perfect parts and worked with talented and intelligent people who knew how to handle me. They never hampered me."
Mills first encountered serious problems during adolescence and on into young adulthood, "when the producers didn't know what to cast me in anymore. And I wasn't sure what to do with myself. I needed to grow up in my own mind. I didn't re-sign with Disney. Instead, I got my first job in theatre. That was my return to school. I was 22 years old."
(Mills learned on the job. She never studied acting formally. Indeed, for the most part, she didn't attend school at all. Tutors on the set provided most of her education. At 15 she went to a finishing school in Switzerland, "where I learned to cook, ski, and perfect my French," Mills comments wryly).
Working in theatre was an artistic watershed, she recalls. "Up until that point I followed my instincts when I acted. And that worked just fine in the simpler roles. But when I started playing more complex characters [a function of aging, if nothing else] the process became more complicated. For the first time I needed to understand what I was doing. I learned it through the rehearsal process."
Not unexpectedly, at the moment, Mills' thoughts are most focused on "Suite in 2 Keys," and its "surprising technical demands. Coward's sentences are long and complex. You have to take a deep breath and complete each sentence without pausing. Otherwise the audience won't know what you're talking about."
She adds, "Working on a Coward play is like working on a piece of music. The audience becomes the conductor. It's the audience that helps shape the dynamics: our pacing and comic timing."
Still, the bottom line is affecting an audience emotionally, Mills notes, fully aware that the plays are of a period. Having said that, she stresses, the double-header should have some resonance in "illuminating people's lives. I hope audiences leave the theatre with more understanding about themselves and the different ways people have to deal with what life throws at them." q