Noel Coward's Fallen Angels is the 1920s equivalent of a sitcom: a silly, entertaining, diversion that lifts spirits without straining brain muscles. The Pasadena Playhouse production, which runs until February 24, spotlights three saucy comediennes (Pamela J Gray, Katie MacNichol, and Mary-Pat Green) who guarantee the jokes and pratfalls punch as hard as they can.
The show follows two bored London wives whose settled lives are upended when a French lover from their past announces his impending arrival, prompting the best friends to progressively inebriate themselves in anticipation of his appearance.
Julia, played by Gray (TV's Sons Of Anarchy), and Jane, played by MacNichol (Broadway's The Green Bird), are both in marriages that have lost their spark. Before Julia and Jane had even met their respective husbands -- Fred, played by Mike Ryan (The Green Bird at La Jolla Playhouse), and Willy, Played by Loren Lester (HBO's Hung) -- the two women shared the passions of the Lothario Maurice, played by Elijah Alexander (Broadway's Metamorphoses). The only natural response to the news of his return to their lives is to get wasted.
Julia and Jane have the kind of neurotic sisterhood that's common to any two women who have been in each other's lives since adolescence. Julia, as the more dominant friend, lords over Jane with a judgmental tone, while also selflessly playing ‘straight-man' to Jane's histrionics -- particularly as the two get more and more sloshed. Though both are equally inebriated, MacNichol plays a hilariously sloppy drunk who falls all over the place. It fits perfectly with her role as the pseudo-little-sister of the duo.
Mary-Pat Green (the original production of Broadway's Sweeney Todd) is a standout in the cast with her delightful role as the madcap maid who plays piano, sings a Vincent Youmans' tune, and has had more careers than Leonardo da Vinci. She steamrolls over her uppity employers and is always armed with a response or a remedy. Ryan and Lester have less colorful roles. It's apparent that Coward doesn't give two figs about the husbands, so he doesn't allow them to do much more than huff, puff, and pout. Alexander, when he finally shows up, is perfectly greasy as the gigolo. The audience spends 90 minutes imagining what Maurice must be like in the flesh, and Alexander's entrance does not disappoint. He's loud, hyper-sexual, and quick on his feet.
Director Art Manke has helmed three other respected Coward productions in Los Angeles, including the American premiere of Star Quality. Here, he keeps the play moving briskly, using the antics of his actresses as fuel. His direction tackles the droll Coward dialogue as adeptly as it guides the script's ludicrous elements.
The production's only sore spot is its curtain lines. The last lines of both acts fall flat, seemingly missing the punctuation – literal or figurative – that would have made them punch.
The stagecraft in Fallen Angels is impeccable. Tom Buderwitz built a bright London flat that is eye-catching in its detail, yet ordinary enough to fit the time period. Lighting Designer Peter Maradudin shines a bright morning sun into the room in Act One and creates an English rain storm for Act Two -- both of which are very realistic. David K. Mickelsen could tell the entire story with his costumes alone. In the first scene, he has Julia in a paisley free-flowing pants suit that Auntie Mame would steal any day, with Jane in a more restrictive grey collared dress that looks like a girlish sailor suit -- infantilizing Jane next to the more stylish Julia. For the rest of the play, he has them both in bright patterned dresses more appropriate for flappers than attached women. For the men, Mickelsen puts the husbands in harsh pin-stripe suits to contrast them with the lover's casual suit, open shirt, ascot tie, and white scarf.
Fallen Angels caused a scandal in 1925 when it first opened in London, with its wanton display of open sexuality and its presentation of the shocking idea that average housewives could desire men other than their husbands. And while it's true that, in 2013, nothing in Noel Coward's play is likely to turn the most-repressed-audience-member's hair white, Manke and his cast create such a racy aura that we almost forget that sneaking around on your husband is sadly commonplace these days.
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