In his writing, as in his life, love affairs bend gender rules, and there's not an evening that can't be made better by gallons of booze. A night spent with the sparring couples of Private Lives or the ghostly ex-lover in Blithe Spirit assures an audience of witty banter shot through with an estimable, if flowery, vocabulary. Things aren't just good; they're grand or divine. When things are rotten, they're a trifle bleak. One walks away from a Coward play carrying a stash of new insults and insights, having also been deliciously entertained.
Devised by Roderick Cook as a jaunty musical textbook of Coward's work, the show has, in director and pianist J. Kent Barnhart, the perfect ringleader and, with the sterling interpretations of Robert Gibby Brand, Melinda MacDonald and Terry O'Reagan, the best possible purveyors of Coward in the city. Though all four are as American as McDonald's apple pies, they share an infectious mastery of what might be called "Cowardice." If the play's the thing, the delivery is paramount; not everyone can trash garish Americans or laugh in the face of catastrophe with quite this much élan.
These acerbic traits are best displayed toward the end of Act One with a pair of witty songs, "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" and "Mrs. Worthington." In the former, Brand and MacDonald eschew world travel because the dolts from places like Omaha and Pennsylvania have ruined it for others. They say, humorously yet inoffensively, that only people like themselves should be allowed abroad.
O'Reagan begins "Mrs. Worthington" in the guise of a melodramatic director or drama coach, asking nicely at first of this misguided stage mother, Don't put your daughter on the stage. He's joined by his castmates as the shortcomings of the oafish girl's personality and looks are increasingly skewered. As they speed up the tempo toward the intermission, their urging becomes a brisk mandate.
Not all of Coward's songs are acidic novelties, though. What has become one of my favorite songs of the era captured here is "If Love Were All," delivered poignantly in Elaine Stritch's one-woman show At Liberty. MacDonald gets the honors here, massaging from a lament of love's perils and pitfalls an oxymoronic brittle confidence. If love were all, she might as well be saying, there wouldn't be a need for such a gorgeous melody to summarize the narrator's strengths as having a talent to amuse.
Even though it begins with a brief monologue called "The Boy Actor," the show isn't trapped by rigid chronology. Rather, it samples various periods of Coward -- for example, collecting several burlesquelike music-hall numbers such as "What Ho! Mrs. Brisket" into a purposely indelicate (and heavily Cockney) medley. Cook's intent is to accentuate Coward's versatility; he could write silly songs for the masses and, with equal aplomb, hold a mirror up to his privileged peers. With his cigarette holders, martinis and famous friends, he certainly hovered above the hoi polloi. But no one seemed to hold his eviscerations against him; unlike, say, Truman Capote, he was never shunned for spilling dirt.
The cast changes its stylish wardrobe a couple of times while limiting itself to white formal or black formal; there's no casualwear in Coward's world. It was a world fueled by tart gin on a barbed tongue, and the actors savor it like a big, fat olive. The show's never less than swellegant.