“Fallen Angels,” Noël Coward’s 1925 farce about two wealthy British women tempted by the return of a Frenchman who once bedded both of them, sparkles at the Pasadena Playhouse under the expert direction of Art Manke. The champagne-bubbly, dryly witty romp about the foibles of the British upper class also deals with such universal themes as the lure of lustful sex, marriages gone stale, the nature of commitment, and the sexual double standard, so the story remains relevant.
The action centers on Julia Sterroll (Pamela J. Gray) and her best friend, Jane Banbury (Katie MacNichol), who are bored with their husbands of five years and pining for long lost passion. Both women receive notes announcing the impending arrival of Maurice Duclos (Elijah Alexander), their mutual premarital lover, just as their respective husbands, Fred and Willy (Mike Ryan and Loren Lester), are leaving together for a golf outing. Torn between their sense of marital duty and their desire to relive the ardor they once enjoyed, Julia and Jane contemplate leaving town to avoid temptation, become suspicious rivals, and try to keep their past secrets from being exposed. When the husbands return, a series of revelations, misunderstandings, and condemnations ensues. Maurice finally arrives, accuses the men of not paying enough attention to their wives, and announces that he has taken the flat directly above the Sterrolls’ apartment.
The highlight of the production is the hilarious scene between Julia and Jane during which, while waiting to hear from Maurice, they get increasingly drunk and quarrel heatedly. The comedy soon progresses to uproarious slapstick. Gray, playing the more controlled and serene of the two, deftly discards Julia’s dignity as she becomes more and more inebriated. It is delightful to watch her gait grow increasingly unsteady, her speech start to slur, and her belligerence ignite.
MacNichol, as the more animated character, has a querulous quality reminiscent of Billie Burke, which is particularly suited to the tone of the play. Her physical and emotional demeanor as Jane gets outraged and flustered after a few too many drinks is priceless, and her behavior when the husbands return and it seems the cat is out of the bag is deliciously over the top.
There is another sidesplitting section during which Saunders (Mary-Pat Green), the Sterrolls’ cockney maid who is expert at practically everything, sits at the piano when she is alone, playing and singing in various styles and using different accents. Green, with her comedic takes and timing, is a scene stealer during her moments onstage.
The men don’t fare as well, but only because they play underwritten stock characters. Alexander manages to exhibit an exaggerated charm as he effectively caricatures the suave Maurice, while Ryan and Lester do as much as possible with the one-dimensional Fred and Willy.
The sumptuous set by Tom Buderwitz, costumes by David K. Mickelsen that reflect the period perfectly, and Steven Cahill’s sound and music combine to add immeasurably to the overall mood of the evening.
Presented by and at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Feb. 3–24. (626) 356-7529 or www.pasadenaplayhouse.org. Casting by Michael Donovan.
Critic’s Score: A