September 25, 1998
The Rehearsal': Did you ever have one of those plays where everything
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By WINSTON BLAIR
EW YORK - Four of Noël Coward's plays recently found
a place on the Royal National Theatre's list of the 100 most significant'
English plays of the twentieth-century. Although frequently revived and a
staple of small theatre groups on both sides of the Atlantic, Coward's
Hay Fever was not among them. The story, of a weekend in the
country with Judith Bilss, a bohemian actress, her husband the novelist,
their two adult children, and the self-centered games they play, using
four guests as pawns in never-ending rounds of romantic one-upmanship, is
classic Coward; brittle, sophisticated, and amusing in a way typical of
English comedy of the 30s.
Playwright Wilbur Valentine has taken Hay Fever, or rather the
rehearsals for the play prior to the opening of the original English cast
in the New York production, as the starting point of his The
Rehearsal, which opened last night at the Drema Paige Theatre.
We witness a rehearsal, just days before Hay Fever opens, conducted
by Noël Coward - directing his own play - with the play's star, the
English actress and comedienne, Laura Hope- Crews. She may be a great
star in England, but Mrs. Hope-Crews has suffered savage critical attacks
and abuse several years before, on her Broadway debut in Rudolph Friml's
The Three Musketeers, and is now, in a towering display of
pre-opening nerves, absolutely convinced that all Americans hate her and
are preparing to hand her the ultimate humiliation of her career on
opening night. Coward, as author and director, is forced to resort to an
increasingly absurd series of tactics, ruses, and deceptions in his
efforts to help her regain her confidence.
The Rehearsal works on all levels. It is an absorbing and
illuminating critical expose of the effects two strong and highly talented
personalities have on each other when locked in creative and emotional
battle. It is a historical documentary, revealing in lavish and authentic
detail the social and theatrical arts as practiced by professionals sixty
years ago. And it is that rare gem, a comedy that is actually funny.
As written by Mr. Valentine and ably directed by J. B. Howard, we soon
forget that we are supposedly watching a famous playwright/actor and
glamorous actress scurrying around up on that stage. What generates the
rolling-in-the-aisles laughter is the realization that we, were we to find
ourselves in a similar situation, would probably end up doing exactly the
same things to equally disastrous and hilarious results.
The set, by George David, evocative of the period and capable of seeming
nothing more than an empty stage at one moment, only to appear crowded and
maze-like the next, is a miracle of efficient and unobtrusive stage
design. The costumes, by Mildred Turtle, surprisingly reveal the
character of each actor without sacrificing a sure sense of period style.
And the lighting, by Clara McComiskey, is so subtle you don't see it, you
only remember the effects afterwards, on your way home.
David E. Leigon plays Noël Coward as the man Coward unquestionably was at
this period in his career, and not the well-known public persona Coward
himself crafted and polished to the point of caricature. Leigon's Coward
is a talented and pretentious young man, ever on guard against revealing
his true self, capable of great compassion but prevented from expressing
it by the lie he feels he must live to win the respect he covets. It is a
Robin Paige plays Laura Hope-Crews. She's not old enough, she's too
good-looking, and, despite being raised in London, her accent is pure New
England nasal. But, none of that matters in the least. With her first
line you relax, realizing you are in the hands of a very capable actress.
Her unexpected delivery of her second line shocks you into gales of
laughter. (Be forewarned and take a deep breath; you won't stop
laughing for the next two and a half hours.) Five minutes into the play
you gleefully accept you are in the presence of a manic comic genius.
(Comparisons are inevitable; think Bea Lillie, Katharine Hepburn, and Lynn
Fontanne.) Ms. Paige is an actress, the likes of which theatrical
legends are made.
I won't advise you to rush right out and buy tickets; I don't need to.
Robin Paige and The Rehearsal will be with us for a long, long
By Wilbur Valentine; directed by J. B. Howard; set by George David;
costumes by Mildred Turtle; lighting by Clara McComiskey; sound by John
Mitchell; production stage manager, Norman Desmond. Presented by
Neverland Theatricals. At the Drema Paige Theatre.
Cast: Robin Paige (Laura Hope-Crews) and David E. Leigon (Noël Coward).
Saturday, September 26
A phonecall from Seattle
"Hey, it must have been some opening night party! I've been trying to
reach you all day and most of the night. What is it, Saturday morning
there now? I've got some great news."
Hold on a second. Let me turn on a light.
"I saw the review in the Trib this morning. Are all of them that good?"
"How's the advance?"
We've got problems.
"No advance sales on reviews like that?"
We've got advance all right. We did almost three hundred thousand before
five this evening.
"That doesn't sound like a problem to me!"
"Let me fill you in on my end. Then I want to hear all about our first
I really think you should listen . . .
"Let me tell you my news first. Drema was right! This Jonathan Franks
guy is Billy Finn. He's the right age. He's the right look. He
can belt. He can act. I had him read a couple of scenes today and it took
him all of three seconds to get what Billy Finn is all about. He's a
natural. Only problem is, he's not a dancer. But I figure a couple of
weeks working with the choreographer and it won't look like he's faking
it. I'm ready to sign him right now. He's doing some cabaret thing for
the next couple of nights. Can you fly out here today to take a look?
Oh, and by the way, Seattle isn't south of LA. Bring an umbrella. And a
coat. I haven't been this excited about Neverland since we started
working on it. All of a sudden, with this Franks guy standing in front of
me, it's real. Billy Finn is real and Neverland is real and
I'm already rewriting stuff because now that I hear Billy Finn saying it,
I know how to make it better!"
Are you through?
"What? Come on! Get excited with me! This is great!"
Are you through?
"Wait a minute . . . what's wrong?"
Put this guy on hold for a couple of days. Tell him you'll get back in
contact by the end of the week. Get out to the airport and get on the
first flight back to New York. I need you here. We have problems.
"I see . . . so tell me, we got great reviews, a damn good advance . . .
Remember that electrical fire we had in the footlights? It looked like
somebody deliberately did it?
Tonight about 7:25, just before they opened the house, it happened again.
"Jeez! Did the crew catch it in time? Much damage? Did you have
to cancel the performance?"
Nobody caught it in time. And, it looks like the sprinkler system and the
fire alarms were sabotaged too. The Drema Paige Theatre burnt to the
ground. We have seven people missing, presumed dead, in the blaze. Robin
is one of them.
"Personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention, and is not only
Shakespeare's greatest originality but also the authentic cause of his
perpetual pervasiveness." So Harold Bloom opines in his outrageously
ambitious Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. This is a
titanic claim. But then this is a titanic book, wrought by a latter-day
critical colossus - and before Bloom is done with us, he has made us
wonder whether his vision of Shakespeare's influence on the whole of our
lives might not be simply the sober truth. Shakespeare is a feast of
arguments and insights, written with engaging frankness and affecting
immediacy. Bloom ranges through the Bard's plays in the probable order of
their composition, relating play to play and character to character,
maintaining all the while a shrewd grasp of Shakespeare's own burgeoning
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
It is a long and fascinating itinerary, and one littered with thousands of
sharp insights. Listen to Bloom on Romeo and Juliet: "The Nurse and
Mercutio, both of them audience favorites, are nevertheless bad news, in
different but complementary ways." On The Merchant of Venice: "To
reduce him to contemporary theatrical terms, Shylock would be an Arthur
Miller protagonist displaced into a Cole Porter musical, Willy Loman
wandering about in Kiss Me Kate." On As You Like It:
"Rosalind is unique in Shakespeare, perhaps indeed in Western drama,
because it is so difficult to achieve a perspective upon her that she
herself does not anticipate and share." Bloom even offers some belated
vocational counseling to Falstaff, identifying him as an Elizabethan Mr.
Chips: "Falstaff is more than skeptical, but he is too much of a teacher
(his true vocation, more than highwayman) to follow skepticism out to its
nihilistic borders, as Hamlet does."
In the end, it doesn't matter very much whether we agree with all or any
of these ideas. What does matter is that Bloom's capacious book sends us
hurrying back to some of the central texts of our civilization. "The
ultimate use of Shakespeare," the author asserts, "is to let him teach you
to think too well, to whatever truth you can sustain without perishing."
Bloom himself has made excellent use of his hero's instruction, and now he
teaches us all to do the same.
by Harold Bloom
List Price $35.00
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