What might seem silly today was deemed “radical” and “obscene” when Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels premiered in 1925. Even T.E. Lawrence — of Arabia — gave it a “humph!”
One exchange may sum up what triggered the reaction.
While their husbands are on a two-day outing at Chichester Golf Club, Julia Sterroll tells friend Jane Banbury, “It seems so unfair that men should have the monopoly on wild oats.”
“They haven’t,” Jane replies, “but it’s our duty to make them think they have.”
The Jazz Age may have liberated many a woman: cigarettes, Charlestons, flappers, bathtub gin, and boundaries trammeled. But Julia and Jane are British aristocrats. Though husbands may dally, propriety imprisons the wives in their London digs, and the Double Standard prevails (Marty Burnett’s posh set at North Coast Rep has wide pink and white stripes, like prison bars, on the rear wall).
Before they were married, Julia and Jane had brief, operatically passionate affairs with the same man, Maurice Duclos. The mere mention of his name, these days, sends them spinning (the name in French means, “from the enclosure”; and note how Sterroll sounds like “sterile”).
Maurice has come to town. He sent each a card, separately — as if to double the Double Standard. And though they’ve been faithful through five years of “wretchedly happy” marriage, Julia confesses to being “ripe for a lapse,” to which Jane opines, “a relapse.”
But who? Which one? And dare she/they? Coward strings out this back and forth for much of Fallen Angels – we must; no we daren’t — interspersed with false alarms, red herring phone calls, and a lot of bickering.
Angels is “early” Coward (he was 25 when he wrote it). You can detect the seemingly effortless hand of the master, but at times it do go on. Duclos’ arrival is, well, long-awaited.
Rosina Reynolds directs the piece as if to Noël Coward born: stiff-upper lips (Jason Maddy and Thomas Miller as Willie Banbury and Fred Sterroll), arias of emotion, all apt. And Reynolds’ physical comedy matches the one-liners. If you don’t count when they flop on the couch for a breather, Joanna Strapp (Julia) and Summer Spiro (Jane) are in near-constant motion. The moves, from subtle to slapstick, have a spontaneous flow.
Coward loves flip-flops. For Angels the brightest, most educated, savvy, and grounded person on stage is the maid: Saunders (Julia thought her first name, Jasmine, was a little too “sticky”). It’s a to-die-for role but you’ll die in a jiff if you don’t get it right. Jacquelyn Ritz gets all of it right.
One of the biggest questions at intermission: where is Duclos? Will he show up? Check the program? Yes. He will. Angels must have one of the theater’s longest build ups for an entrance. When he finally gets the call, wearing one of Alina Bokovikova’s natty costumes, Richard Baird is a full-bearded boulevardier par excellence.