The drawing room was for Noel Coward what blank verse was for Shakespeare: the seemingly limiting structure within which the playwright finds incalculable room for expressive maneuvering. With little more than a couch, desk, dining table, piano, and a well-stocked bar at his disposal, Coward had great fun exploring all the petty fears, desires, and hang-ups of the bourgeois Londoners that populate his plays. Chief among those fears and desires, and perhaps Coward’s favorite topic, is the conflict between sex and manners, the battle between indulging human desire or denying its call in favor of the modest politeness of buttoned-up high society.
And Coward took great delight in demonstrating the rampant hypocrisy of a politeness so at home in well-appointed London drawing rooms.
In the deceptively subversive Fallen Angels (1925), now receiving a spirited staging at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Coward eagerly squeezes all the juice out of the polite society drawing room to show it for the lust-filled arena of human desires that it is.
As Fred (Jeffrey M. Bender) and Willy (Ned Noyes) leave town for a weekend golf trip, their wives, Julia (Julie Jesneck) and Jane (Melissa Miller), gather at Julia’s home in a fright. Jane has just received word that Maurice Duclos (Michael Sharon) is coming to town to visit the ladies, and she insists that they must flee to avoid him. Duclos is a Frenchman with whom Jane and Julia each had separate affairs prior to getting married, and now they are terrified that the mere presence of the exotic lover from their past will spur them to unavoidable adultery. Yet, as they talk through their fear, cracks emerge in their apparently strong wills, dividing them against each other and themselves. They resolve to stand their ground, toughing out the evening waiting for Duclos to arrive only to show him how far they each have grown beyond their youthful trysts.
As the evening wears on, Duclos proves tardy but plenty of booze is on hand to drive Julia and Jane to more comedic levels of despair and fret. A long scene of alcohol-fueled comedy commences—imagine if Vladimir and Estragon had had the sense to bring a bottle along—and we see Coward at his best, lampooning the façade of moral uprightness that so easily collapses around polite society’s desires for human indulgence.
Coward’s work can certainly seem repetitive — OK, we get it: the snooty bourgeois are sex-crazed drunks like the rest of us—but that does not detract from the fun of watching his characters in all of their flawed glory. Audiences that enjoyed watching Gary Essendine fumble his way through his own booze-and-sex-filled drawing room at Two River Theater Company’s recent production of Coward’s Present Laughter will surely get the same thrill at seeing Jane and Julia falter when their polite morals are tested. Rarely do the nobility or well-to-do make out well in drama, after all, but Coward’s work bears a particularly biting comic edge. He saw through to the souls of those he chose to lampoon, and held very little back in exposing the hilarity of their hypocrisy.
Jesneck and Miller dive eagerly into the Julia and Jane, heartily embracing the roles of seemingly good people being bad. The ladies are troubled from the outset of the play by the arrival of Duclos’s postcard, and so their entire time onstage is spent struggling to keep hold of their well-honed manners against the powerful draw of their desires and drives. But the actresses give us a nicely textured performance, as the two characters are not in precisely identical predicaments; rather, Julia begins on a slightly higher moral plateau and we meet Jane a bit more given over to the call of her libido. The dichotomy remains throughout the first act and, as more and more booze enters into the affairs, it becomes the source of tension between the two ladies who seemed so very similar from the beginning.
Booze, lust, and jealousy mix for a classic comic cocktail that makes up much of Fallen Angels’s first act, and while it’s always fun to laugh at the drunks on stage, the production’s comic high points don’t arrive until the second act when the ladies scramble in their hungover daze to reconcile the events of the evening to their husbands returning home. Drunken comedy is the easy stuff, but the play shows its real nuance and insight as Julia and Jane work to recuperate their high-society politeness. Bender and Noyes succeed in not only portraying the confused and morally affronted husbands but in fact standing in for the morally affronted society to which the pay’s four main characters belong. Their return to the drawing at daybreak forces the return of Jane and Julia from their evening’s bacchanal, and ushers in the production’s most hilarious moments. For all that Coward lampooned about his characters, he seems to have loved most of all watching the upper class try to save face after we have already seen all of their human lowness.
Fallen Angels is primarily a two-character play that endeavors to ask whether we are watching the fall of two angels in progress or if that fall had happened long before the play opened. The playwright would likely have a very different answer to that question than his characters, and it is in that dissonance that Fallen Angels locates its best comedy and its most subversion. Coward loved a well-appointed drawing room, but mostly for all of the hilarious cracks and secrets he could find hiding there in the open.