Noël Coward, who turned 100 last month, grew up in the theater. Observant, articulate, a good mimic and an astute judge of character, Coward may have adored its glamour, but had no illusions about the hard work and skillful contriving needed to create the effect. The cooing divas and bluff leading men with whom he apprenticed may have thought they were teaching him his craft, but at the same time they taught him themselves, and Coward had no qualms about using the material they so generously proffered. If the more quotidian figures in his other plays sometimes seem all too theatrical, the people of Waiting in the Wings, mostly seasoned members of “the profession,” seem entirely real, even while going through high sentiments and plot twists that could easily come from their antiquated repertoire. Their charm is, in fact, a sort of occupational tic: Having been in the theater so long, they can’t help theatricalizing whatever happens to them.
Set in an old-age home for actresses appropriately called “The Wings,” Coward’s 1960 sentimental comedy is a tribute to theatricality’s unkillable spirit. The house’s inmates may die, go mad, or dwindle to bedridden senility, but someone will always be alert enough to crack a joke, pick out a tune on the piano, comfort a newcomer, or deliver an instant, withering opinion of the next generation’s latest efforts. The outside world may be as drab, crazy, and heartless as it likes; in here the camaraderie of the stage, the sense of conspiring in the innocent act of creating illusion, will always prevail.
Naturally, the 1960 West End premiere of Waiting in the Wings was a critical disaster: After sympathizing with the Coward-esque conspiracy for decades, London’s press had just taken up the call of the new movement that was vowing to sweep illusion out of the theater. It was too early for them to perceive that this sweep was, itself, just another, less diverting illusion. (The London theater press being hopelessly dim, many of them have not perceived it yet, though the new movement waned nearly 20 years ago, and little of value has come out of England since.) In any case, Coward’s delightful play was sunk, and the negative write-ups kept it from coming over here till now.
This has its ironies: The action includes a crisis precipitated by a shallow, two-faced journalist, and part of Coward’s joke is to demonstrate that she herself is really a good person playing a role, arts journalism being just a cruder, more charade-like form of theater. The crisis fizzles out, but meantime it solves one serious problem for the Wings’ tenants—and precipitates another. Coward depicts these reversals as simply the way of the world; the play finds him in a nostalgic and conciliatory mood about journalism as about everything else. Knowing better than anyone how different the theater of the 1960s would be from what went before, he built this world of stagers past to his own specifications. Though the dialogue is a barrage of famous actors’ names, quotes from old plays, and scraps of old musicals, virtually everything is a brand-new Coward invention, from the score of the 1918 hit Miss Mouse to the offstage antics of contemporary stars like Buck Randy and Boodie Nethersole.
The story’s mainspring is the decades-old feud between the house’s reigning diva, a poor-but-proud grande dame in the Edith Evans mode, and its latest arrival, a sweet mouse of a “pathetic” actress, who long ago stole the diva’s husband. Coward must have had great fun balancing these two lead roles, measuring an equal number of stagy plums into each. “I would be the last to deny your sentimental appeal to an audience,” the diva replies chillingly to her new housemate’s plea for a reconciliation. “It was all you ever had.”
The line sums up another irony history has inflicted on Coward: Our theater’s no longer in the hands of people who understand what he was doing. The line I’ve quoted is addressed, in the current production, to Lauren Bacall, who has all the sentimental appeal of a carving knife. Bacall looks terrific: In her smart Armani-ish suit—gossip says she’s declined to wear outfits proposed by the show’s eminent costume designer, Alvin Colt—with her chiseled profile and styled hair, she looks ready for next week’s fashion page, while her ineffable hauteur suggests, not a plucky old repertory dame in need of shelter, but a business exec come to check out the site. Inevitably, she throws everything out of kilter: Rosemary Harris, who has a gift for tender pathos, has to push and strain to domineer over the irrefragable Bacall; everyone else has to busily not notice what amounts to a time-traveling alien in their midst.
The mistakes in Michael Langham’s production go beyond Bacall: Coward’s script has of course been cut—a lousy enough 100th birthday present—but it’s also been tinkered with, needlessly and for the most part unhelpfully, by Jeremy Sams, always ready to cram his thick-soled foot into the mouths of better writers. Ray Klausen’s clumsy set ungraciously points up the smallness of the stage, and Langham’s often clumsier staging often heightens its inconvenience. Coward slyly opened this hectic play on a dull domestic scene, with knitting and card playing; Langham’s idea of humor is to start it with paramedics struggling to get a corpse down the winding stairs, while the residents sing “Land of Hope and Glory.” (All the songs Coward wrote for the piece have been replaced by less appropriate standards.)
These lapses are exceptionally maddening because the production’s full of heroes—all of them, except for Colt and wigmaster Mitch Ely, onstage, waiting patiently for Bacall to get out of the way so they can strut their stuff: Helen Stenborg, as the resident pyromaniac, steals the bulk of the show, but only after much of its bric-a-brac has been efficiently pocketed by the likes of Rosemary Murphy, Elizabeth Wilson, Dana Ivey, Barnard Hughes, Simon Jones, Patricia Connolly, Helena Carroll, and Bette Henritze. They all come through like troupers—in this context, the highest compliment.
The new, nicer Salieri doesn’t kill Mozart, he just kind of helps him less; the new, nicer Mozart has acquired a brain but lost his rock-star cojones, so that he comes off like Bugs Bunny playing a computer geek. The pity is that David Suchet, far less snooty in his self-torment than Ian McKellen (speaking of ineffable hauteur onstage!), would be worth seeing in a real play. So, probably, would his Mozart, Michael Sheen. Why anyone wants to bask in Shaffer’s rambling swill again, I can’t fathom. Mozart’s life, which was dramatic, is heavily documented—the curious can find the data in Robert Gutman’s recent, thorough Mozart (Harcourt Brace)—while Shaffer’s version is all arrant lies and nonsense from the start, when Mozart turns Salieri’s little tune of welcome into “Non più andrai,” including the military exordium, which he couldn’t have composed without knowing what was in the libretto. Interesting that the aspect of Mozart Shaffer understands least is his gift for dramatization.