Noel Coward's plays can be divided into two groups. The first group would be his enduring classics which, as he himself once remarked, were written for and tailored specifically to the talents of the actors who would first play in them. (Think Gertrude Lawrence and Coward himself in Private Lives. Think the Lunts and again Coward himself in Design for Living.) The second group were the plays written with no special performers in mind, no set of unique talents and strengths around which to craft the main characters. Waiting in the Wings, which opened last night at the Walter Kerr Theatre, belongs firmly in this latter group.
During his early and middle years, the late 20's through the early 50's, after his first great success The Vortex, Coward devoted a considerable amount of his personal time supporting and raising funds for theatrical charities similar to the retirement home for actresses, "the Wings", of this play's title. It's impossible to know when Coward first had the idea of putting the people he encountered during his charitable activities in a play, but it is unquestionably this contact with theatrical charity organizations and the aging performers who lived the final years of their lives in relative comfort because of them, which gives Waiting in the Wings its strong sense of authenticity.
However, lacking any stars whose particular talents needed to be showcased to guide him in structuring the scenes, Coward relied instead on creating a cast of characters each of whom represents a particular type. In the theatre of Coward's youth, this was a perfectly acceptable, reasonable and appropriate thing for a playwright to do. In our enlightened times, we call it stereotyping and it is viewed with suspicion in all but the most mundane television situation comedy. The result, as we now see it, is a play devoid of that special Coward "sparkle and wit," filled with all too familiar characters plodding their predictable way through what is at best a workmanlike plot. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is, after all, still a Noel Coward play and in the hands of a competent ensemble cast would provide an entertaining evening at the theatre.
Unfortunately, Coward's name, though still well known and respected, is no longer enough to guarantee the success of a major commercial production on Broadway with only a competent ensemble cast. Therefore stars of the calabur and stature of Lauren Bacall, Rosemary Harris, Barnard Hughes, Dana Ivey, and Elizabeth Wilson have been hired to give this production the aura of a "must see" theatrical event. This works to no ones advantage. Because their roles were not written to adequately display their talents, these great actors are all reduced to performances in minor keys, inevitably disappointing their audiences. They do the best they can, in very professional manners, to follow Michael Langham's direction, which strives for a seamless continuity. But, overall, the audience's expectations are not met.
Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris suffer the most. You can, at times, actually see them chaffing at the restrictions of their roles, unable to pull out all the stops and give the audience what it wants to see. Bernard Hughes and Dana Ivey come off slightly better, making the most of their broadly written characters in all too brief scenes. Elizabeth Wilson fairs best, benefitting from the warmth and skeptical compassion Coward has given her character. The rest of the cast do their professional best, considering what they are given to work with.
The scenery, by Ray Klausen, is well thought out, with many small, easily missed details that provide their own comment on the proceedings. The costumes, by Alvin Colt, are exactly what they should be. The lighting, by Ken Billington, is unintrusive.
As a Noel Coward play new to Broadway Waiting in the Wings is worth seeing. As a vehicle for the legendary Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris, it's disappointing. If you could care less about Coward, Bacall, or Harris, and just want to see a reasonably good production of a reasonably entertaining play, it's worth the price of the ticket.
Waiting in the Wings by Noel Coward, as revised by Jeremy Sams. Directed by Michael Langham. Scenery by Ray Klausen. Costumes by Alvin Colt. Lighting by Ken Billington. Sound by Peter Fitzgerald. Starring Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris, with Victoria Boothby, Amelia Campbell, Helena Carroll, Patricia Conolly, Anthony Cummings, Bette Henritze, Barnard Hughes, Dana Ivey, Simon Jones, Sybil Lines, Crista Moore, Rosemary Murphy, Helen Stenborg, and Elizabeth Wilson.
Theatre: Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street, New York, NY 10036 (between Broadway & 8th Avenue)
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
Audience: May be inappropriate for children 11 and under.
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM. Added performance Monday 12/20 at 8 PM, Monday 12/27 at 8 PM. No performances Friday 12/24, Friday 12/31.
Ticket prices: $70 & $60 ($25 Balcony seats are available for purchase in person at the Box Office only) The price will include an additional $1 Restoration charge, per ticket, for the restoration and preservation of the theatre.
Standing room: Available at the Box Office, only when the performance is completely sold out.
Tickets in person: Box Office hours Monday through Saturday 10 AM to 8 PM, Sunday NOON to 6 PM.
Tickets online: www.telecharge.com
Tickets by phone: Tele-charge at (212 )239-6255, or outside the NY metro area (800) 545-2559, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Tickets by snail mail: Waiting in the Wings, PO Box 998, Times Square Station, New York, NY 10108-0998
Tickets by E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org