A Song at Twilight
by Noël Coward
February 26 - March 17, 2013
In Noël Coward’s theatrical farewell, Sir Hugo, a successful, aging writer, has paid a personal price for concealing his sexuality from the public. When a former starlet arrives at his hotel room with a handful of revealing letters, Sir Hugo is forced to confront his past – and his wife – in this comedic and poignant play with music about fame, privilege, and a life in the theater.
Running Time: approximately 2 hours including one 15 minute intermission
Words provided by the staff at Portland Stage, but face it, any theater lover has only to hear this giant of the 20th century's name and reservations are made.
"A Song at Twilight" is a later work, set during the 1960s in a suite overlooking a Swiss Alpine lake.
Professional theater offers careers, and making a living through love of work is special. Portland Stage is Maine's only LORT (League of Resident Theatres) establishment, and as an audience member, the quality of the productions should rival any other regional theater in the country. Brittany Vasta's set design is on full display as I enter and find my seat, immediately creating the elegance of old world charm enjoying the company of modern sophistication. Cut out panels and unattached walls toyed with abstraction, working with the three large French doors upstage leading to the balcony, to enhance an airy atmosphere.
The lighting design of Andrew Hungerford works well for the interior action, but little attention seems to have been paid to lighting the balcony or the world beyond. A large grey vacuum dominated the upstage area, working against the pictures created within the action of the dialogue. An illusion of reflecting water would have helped in adding energy to the void. Four characters without many costume changes doesn't diminish Hugh Hanson's clothing decisions regarding these actors. Wigs and costumes are very important for most actors to fully connect with the being inhabiting them, and Mr. Hanson makes distinct choices which cement and underline characteristics unique to each role.
Paul Mullins is at the helm of this production, assembling four talented actors for play in Mr. Coward's dialogue. Mr. Mullins' direction creates nice movement throughout the play and utilizes the set to his advantage. "A Song at Twilight" started as an one-act, this production adding three Coward songs to create a full length production.
"A Song at Twilight" is presented by Portland Stage, main stage, through March 17. Tickets: 774-0465 or www.portlandstage.org.
(Harold Withee is a member of Actors' Equity and SAG-AFTRA.)
In fact, the production opens with "You Were There," happily sung and played on a gorgeous antique baby grand by a spotlighted young man (Harrison M. Beck, admirably recreating Coward's own phrasing). This is Felix, a waiter in the elegant hotel that is home to elderly playwright Sir Hugo Latymer (Edmond Genest) and his personal assistant-cum-wife Hilde (Maureen Butler). In this high-ceilinged suite (luxurious set design by Brittany Vasta), Felix returns often to the piano in Hugo's presence, and in doing so, he poses a poignant younger counterpoint to the older man, whose younger passions are at the center of this show: When a former lover, Carlotta (Carol Halstead) visits for dinner, she has more than nostalgia in mind, having brought along decades-old letters that Hugo would rather forget.The name of Noël Coward is fairly synonymous with the biting, devastating verbal wit of his farces like Blithe Spirit, in which well-off Brits behave badly, having at each other with verbal razors. But audiences have the chance to experience a quite different Coward in his A Song at Twilight, written in 1966, more than 20 years after Blithe Spirit and only a few years before the playwright's death. In this bracingly candid drama, the cleverness is softened; the show's greater concern is the quieter ambivalence of the human heart. A Song at Twilight receives a sensitive, beautiful production at Portland Stage Company, under the direction of Paul Mullins, interwoven with performances of Coward's own songs.
Carlotta is an immediate wrench in the works of Hugo's carefully manicured life; as she herself remarks, she is as "rude" as he is "pompous:" Impulsive and proudly lacking refinement, Halstead's Carlotta stretches provocatively, snaps the salad tongs at him, eats caviar from the serving bowl (doing a little delicious-happy-dance in her chair as she does), and flirts with the waiter. (Beck's Felix is delicious, tempering his waiter's pleasant servility with lingering smiles and backwards looks at the older woman fawning over him.) And most importantly, Halstead makes clear that Carlotta knows exactly how to goad Hugo in ways he finds most uncomfortable and thus infuriating.
Hugo, in the hands of Genest (who appeared at PSC last season in Heroes), treats Carlotta with uncompromising rigidity and unveiled distaste. He convincingly presents a man who has not only calcified in his just-so ways, through a life of success and coddling, but who has grown a disdain and meanness for the world because of it. Halstead's Carlotta sees this in him and more, and is a great foil for it. Her character has an interesting series of turns to reveal; she shifts nicely from wry teasing to her more serious concerns, though I'd like to see her bare her own stakes a little more starkly.
As the current woman in Hugo's life, Butler's merry, maternal Hilde is a delight. She warmly and with great subtlety conveys how her character's substantial wisdom, affection, and good humor manage to contain decades of ambivalence in her relationship with Hugo, whose rote cruelty to her she calls him on but still takes in stride. Butler is especially luminous in Act Two, once Hilde has come home pleasantly tipsy and forthcoming from a few stingers. Her most candid monologue to Hugo is met with what Genest's posture makes clear is a soul-wrenching devastation.
It is uncommonly moving to watch Genest's Hugo from that point through the end, as the once-callous wit falls away to reveal a quiet, naked grief — and it is all the more arresting to watch him letting Hilde see it. In their final, fraught moment of mutual acknowledgement, nearly no words are said, but the emotional complexity between them is worth thousands of them.
A SONG AT TWILIGHT | by Noël Coward | Directed by Paul Mullins | Produced by Portland Stage Company | through March 17 | 207.774.0465
Dilettante: A Song at Twilight at Portland Stage
by Jan Brennan
Playwright Noel Coward was the toast of early 20th century London for his amusing, fast-paced drawing-room comedies. Audiences seeing Portland Stage’s current offering, “A Song at Twilight,” will enjoy Coward’s familiar brand of witty repartee, but now the banter flies around more weighty themes. Written when Coward was in his mid-60s, “Twilight” is a mature play that examines several serious and interesting issues.
The play opens with Sir Hugo Latymer, an aging writer, and his wife, Hilde, awaiting the arrival of Hugo’s old girlfriend, Carlotta. Hugo and Carlotta have long been estranged (“We parted in a blaze of mutual acrimony,” Hugo says), and Hilde and he can’t imagine why she has decided to visit now. Edmond Genest as Hugo perfectly portrays an ailing, complaining old man who can still muster up his suave charm once his wife leaves for a dinner date and his former lover, a famous actress, struts in on stilettos, oozing glamour and sex appeal which she openly attributes to plastic surgery and touch-up injections.
Over dinner, Hugo and Carlotta reminisce, flirt and parry as Carlotta’s Americanized bluntness clashes with Hugo’s British propriety. She explains the reason for her visit: She’s writing her autobiography, and wants Hugo’s permission to publish his love letters to her. Hugo is horrified at the very idea; “It’s in the worst possible taste,” he says. Permission denied.
Now Carlotta brings out her big guns: She also has letters Hugo wrote to another lover, and she’s thinking of giving those to a Harvard professor writing the definitive biography of Hugo. Act II takes a dark turn as a devastated Hugo faces the destruction of his carefully nurtured public facade.
As the pink champagne continues to flow, Carlotta (ably played by Carol Halstead) drops her celebrity persona and reveals herself as the hurt and confused human she is. She feels Hugo used her, she’s resentful that he didn’t trust her enough to reveal his secrets to her, and she’s angry that he wrote disparagingly about her in his autobiography. The cold-hearted Hugo calls her an “emotional hemophiliac” who’s “managed to keep this old wound freshly bleeding” – yet who among us hasn’t done that?
In the end, it falls to the dowdy Hilde to make things right. She reveals some secrets of her own, and her nobility of character outshines Hugo and Carlotta’s cheap glitter and easy wit. Maureen Butler plays her with touching gravitas (though the audience clearly enjoyed her Stinger-induced giddiness).
Set designer Brittany Vasta has done an outstanding job in creating an opulent suite in a Swiss hotel, complete with crystal chandeliers, Oriental rug and a baby grand piano, all generously lent by local vendors. Lighting designer Andrew Hungerford nicely colors the backdrop in sunset pinks and purples as twilight deepens. Hugh Hanson’s costumes capture the 1960s; he has Sir Hugo looking especially classy in Noel Coward’s signature dressing gown and smoking jacket.
Harrison M. Beck makes the most of his small part as a room-service waiter, and he gets to have some fun on the baby grand, playing and singing a medley of Coward’s own songs – a nice addition to what is usually staged as a one-act play. In the Saturday matinee reviewed, the only minor glitches were Butler’s Germanic accent going in and out a bit, and one brief instance of Genest and Halstead talking over each other’s lines; otherwise, director Paul Mullins has given Portland Stage a very entertaining and thought-provoking play.
Review: Coward's wit shines through in old-school 'Song at Twilight'
By STEVE FEENEY
When you think of Noel Coward's strengths as a playwright, you think of witty dialogue with sophisticated zingers cutting into, but not completely through, a veil of British reserve and class consciousness.
But the times were changing as Coward approached the end of his career. Written amid the social upheavals of the 1960s, the latest Portland Stage offering suggests some straining by the author against the old ties holding mainstream society and its chroniclers within bounds.
"A Song at Twilight" is masterfully written, in an old-school, classic sort of way, and very funny at times. It also conveys a certain unease that was emergent in the theatrical world of the time.
The play concerns Sir Hugo, a wealthy and successful older writer who guards his vanity and reputation with a sharp tongue and unsparing pen from a private suite in a luxury Swiss hotel.
When ex-flame Carlotta appears with a handful of potentially embarrassing love letters and a threat to make them public, the limits of Hugo's tight control over his image and legacy are tested.
Theater veteran Edmond Genest has the lead role and was perfectly believable as the man whose "indestructible elegance" is put in the service of a "carefully sculptured reputation." His character's arrogance, anger and exasperation were forcefully portrayed on opening night, as was his ultimate vulnerability.
Carol Halstead was strong in the role of the wronged lover hoping to get Hugo to admit to his years of "cruelty" and "cowardice."
She slinks around her host, enjoying his slow deflation as she parries his increasingly desperate attempts at getting the dangerous letters out of her possession.
Maureen Butler, as Hugo's current spouse, deftly turned her character's initial rather minor, but nicely comic, role in the scenario into an applause-gathering monologue that saves the day by letting the others see a way out of their dilemma.
All three of the main players were successful at portraying the difficult processes of unmasking that take place in the play.
Director Paul Mullins appears to have cut some dialogue but has added three Coward songs performed by Harrison M. Beck, who plays the proud but discreet waiter Felix.
It's a nice touch that adds lyrical depth to a play full of characters struggling to find safe emotional footing as the hour grows late.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.
Serving up 'A Song at Twilight'
Portland Stage presents one of the last plays penned by the legendary Noel Coward.
By Bob Keyes, Staff Writer
Noel Coward was no mystery to director Paul Mullins.
Coward is one of England's best-known and most-loved playwrights, and Mullins was well familiar with many of Coward's most popular plays, such as "Private Lives," "Blithe Spirit" and "Hay Fever."
But Mullins had never heard of "A Song at Twilight" until Portland Stage Company artistic director Anita Stewart approached him with an offer to direct it. The play opens this week and runs through March 17.
Mullins was intrigued with the offer.
His research revealed that "A Song at Twilight" was one of Coward's final plays. First produced in London in 1966, he wrote it as part of a trilogy, all set in a luxury hotel in Switzerland. The play depicts an elderly writer whose public image is challenged by a former mistress with secrets to reveal.
Mullins didn't much care for the other plays in the trilogy, but he loved "A Song at Twilight."
"I thought this one was really interesting and also very different," the director said during a rehearsal break at the theater. "It's a lot like the other things by Coward that we are familiar with, but also very different."
Because Coward wrote it late in life, there is more reflection and a sense of looking back at a life fully lived. The play is layered with regret for roads not taken, with heartbreak and with a sense of lust.
It could only have been written by someone who had experienced those emotions, as Coward had.
"It just struck me as weighty and with more depth than his other work that we are familiar with," Mullins said.
"A Song at Twilight" tells the story of Sir Hugo, a successful writer who has managed to keep his homosexuality private. His cover is blown when a former mistress shows up at his hotel to confront him and his wife with his secret past. She has a trove of private letters from Sir Hugo to a man named Percy in which he confides his desires.
It is generally believed that Coward wrote this play with himself in mind. He wrote it during a time when homosexuality was still widely closeted.
Coward never revealed his sexual preference in public until "Twilight" came out, when he said, "It is a subject that only lately has come into circulation, because only lately have we been able to discuss it openly."
Connecticut-based actor Edmond Genest, who appeared last season at Portland Stage in "Heroes," leads a cast of four as Sir Hugo. Portland-area actor Maureen Butler plays Sir Hugo's wife, Hilde Latymer. Carol Halstead portrays the former mistress, Carlotta Gray, and Harrison M. Beck plays the waiter, Felix.
Beck also has the distinction of performing on piano in this play. It's not a musical, though Coward was also well known for his songwriting. Stewart told Mullins she wanted to incorporate Coward's music into this show, so Beck finds himself at the keyboard for several songs.
Genest agrees with Mullins -- he loves "Twilight" because it feels so personal.
"It was one of his last plays," Genest said, "and I think because of that, he was a little more honest, as we tend to be when we get older. This has a lot of soul-searching that I hadn't found in his other plays."
Genest also loves the language. Coward's use of words and sentence construction are genius, he said, and on a par with other great playwrights such as Ibsen, Chekhov and even Shakespeare.
"The words are stunning," he said. "They're just wonderful to say."
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Noёl Coward (1899-1973) was born in 1899 in South London, and would become one of the most well-known English writers of the 20th century. At the age of ten, his mother took him to an audition for a play titled The Goldfish; he was cast, launching a lifelong passion for entertaining and the stage. Coward’s first play, The Vortex, which he wrote, directed, and starred in, premiered in 1924 at the Everyman Theater in Hampstead, one of the earliest fringe theaters in London. Coward went on to write a series of plays and songs that came to define refined (and witty) British culture. He is best known for the plays Private Lives (1930) and Blithe Spirit (1942) and the operetta Bitter Sweet (1929). Through his life, though, Coward wrote not only plays, but also music, poetry, novels, and short stories. Portland Stage has previously produced his plays Fallen Angels (1984), Blithe Spirit (1999), and Private Lives (twice, 1982 and 1996).
ABOUT THE CAST
Harrison M. Beck (Felix/Pianist) has appeared previously at La Mama E.T.C. in That Beautiful Laugh, at the Kraine Theatre in Familiar Song, Forgotten Melody, and as Cymbeline at the Classical Studio, NYU. He is a graduate of New York University's Tisch Drama school and Steinhardt School of music.
Maureen Butler (Hilde Latymer) Maureen is an Affiliate Artist here at Portland Stage. She has appeared in Lettice and Lovage, Third, Center of Gravity, Hidden Tennessee, and A Christmas Carol where she played Mrs. Cratchitt for six years. Originally from the Boston area, Maureen was co-founder of StageDoor Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts, producing and appearing in A Lie of the Mind, Time of Your Life, The Illusion, and A Slight Ache. She is a member of Mad Horse Theater Company where she appeared in Circle Mirror Transformation last spring and other numerous productions. In the summers, she has performed with the Fenix Theater Company and the Theater at Monmouth. Maureen also participates in Theater for Kids and various other Affiliate Artist events.
Edmond Genest (Hugo Latymer) is quite happy to be back at Portland Stage where he appeared last year as Gustave in HEROES also directed by Paul Mullins. He grew up in Lynn, MA and makes his home in New Preston, CT. He has been actively employed in the business of making plays, movies, television shows and various forms of entertainment for the past fifty years. Broadway: The Elephant Man; A Few Good Men; The Retreat From Moscow; Dance of Death; The Real Thing; Whose Life is is, Anyway? ; Dirty Linen and New-Found Land and Onward Victoria. Off-Broadway: The Real Inspector Hound; After Magrite; The Browning Version; Later Life; Escape From Happiness. Regional Theatres: The Huntington, The Long Wharf, Hartford Stage, Hartford's Theaterworks, The Yale Rep, Baltimore's Center Stage, The Kennedy Center, Cincinnati Playhouse, Houston's Alley Theatre, Berkeley Rep, Pittsburgh's City Theater and The Public Theater. He has performed for five seasons at The Williamstown Theater Festival and for seventeen seasons with The Shakespeare Theater Festival of New Jersey. Mr. Genest is a proud member of three unions: Actors Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild and The American Federation of Radio and Television Artists. He very much looks forward to supporting the vibrant restaurant scene he found in Portland last year.
Carol Halstead (Carlotta Gray) is thrilled to spend some time in the beautiful State of Maine. She has performed on Broadway in Gore Vidal's The Best Man and Off Broadway in The Duchess of Malfi, Pericles, Walking Down Broadway, Easter Candy, The Mask and Alan Ball's The Amazing Adventures of Tense Guy. Regional Credits include most recently; The World Premiere of John Kolvenbach's Half ‘N Half ‘N Half at Merrimack Rep, Jean in Good People at the Old Globe, Barbara in August: Osage County at Fulton Theatre, Annette in God of Carnage at Hudson Stage, Lane in The Clean House at Syracuse Stage, Amanda in Private Lives at The Kitchen Theatre. Other theatres include The Shakespeare Theatre Company, CENTERSTAGE, Cleveland Play House, Portland Center Stage, Kansas City Repertory Theatre, San Jose Repertory Theatre (in the West Coast premiere of Teresa Rebeck's Bad Dates, 2004 Dean Goodman Choice Award for Best Solo Performance), over 20 productions with Denver Center Theatre Company, many summer seasons with Chautauqua Theater Company and three festival seasons with PCPA Theaterfest under Donovan Marley's leadership. Her television and film credits include Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Jonny Zero, As the World Turns, All My Children, Towel Head and The Whipper Snapper. Ms. Halstead makes her home in New York City where she trains as a second-degree black belt in Seido karate. She is a graduate of The American Conservatory Theater and Florida State University.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION TEAM
Paul Mullins (Director) is always happy to return to Portland Stage where he directed HEROES, The Center of Gravity, Third, Trying, Lettice and Lovage and True West. Paul is a company member at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey where he has directed The Liar, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, The Lion In Winter, Noises Off, Private Lives, The Time of Your Life, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Richard II, Illyria, King John, The Illusion, Tartuffe, Rhinoceros, Measure for Measure, All's Well That Ends Well and The Threepenny Opera. Other regional credits: Good People, Twelfth Night, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Measure for Measure and Macbeth at The Old Globe; Tynan, The Solid Gold Cadillac, The Seafarer, Fat Pig, This Is How It Goes and The Russian National Postal Service at The Studio Theatre, DC; You Can't Take It With You at Chautauqua Theater Company; The Whore and Mr. Moore and Superior Donuts at Dorest Theatre Festival; I'm Connecticut, Urinetown: The Musical, and The Comedy of Errors at Connecticut Repertory Theatre; The Swan, Reckless, and Two Gents at American Stage; also Yale School of Drama, The Juilliard School and NYUgrad.
Brittany Vasta (Set Designer) is based in Brooklyn, NY. She grew up as an army brat and has lived all around the country, but this is her first time to Maine! She is excited to be working at Portland Stage for the first time and with the delightful Paul Mullins a second time. Some previous regional work includes Lombardi (Smithtown Theatre), Shout (Shadowland Theatre), The Wild Duck (Atlas Room, NYU), and Poco a Poco (Gene Frankel Theatre). Some associate work includes What Rhymes with America (Atlantic Theatre), Luck of the Irish (LCT3), and Radiance (Labyrinth Theatre). Education: MFA, NYU.
Hugh Hanson (Costume Designer) is in his third season at Portland Stage, previously having designed Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh, Heroes and The Center of Gravity. He will return at the end of the season to design Wittenberg. His selected credits include The Colorado Shakespeare Festival (CO) Richard III, Treasure Island, Comedy of Errors, The Shakespeare Theatre (NJ) Trelawny of the Wells, Hamlet, A Streetcar Named Desire, As You Like It, Richard II, A Christmas Carol, George Street Playhouse (NJ) Lend Me A Tenor, Pan-Asian Rep (NY) Eating Chicken Feet, Diamond Head Theatre (HI), Victor/Victoria and O'hia Productions (HI) On Dragonfly Wings. Hugh is a milliner and draper at Carelli Costumes NY. He is a tenor with the St. Bart's Singers, St. Bart's Episcopal, NY
Andrew Hungerford (Lighting Designer) is delighted to be making his debut at Portland Stage. Other credits include: The Liar, Oliver Twist, Timon of Athens at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey; the remount of These Seven Sicknesses at the Flea Theater in NYC; K2, Amadeus, The Piano Lesson at Performance Network Theatre; G.O.Ne. at Need Theater; Creation at the Theatre @ Boston Court; Translations, Faith Healer at Stanford Summer Theatre; The Second City Does Cincinnati at Cincinnati Playhouse. International credits include: Le Nozze di Figaro in Lucca, Italy; Of People and Not Things at the Edinburgh Fringe. Andrew has spent three seasons with Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and six seasons with Know Theatre of Cincinnati as those companies' resident scenic and lighting designer. Cincinnati credits include: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; Dracula; Henry VIII; Richard II; Angels in America (Parts 1 and 2); Adding Machine: the Musical; Gruesome Playground Injuries; When the Rain Stops Falling. Andrew's lighting was exhibited at the 2007 Prague Quadrennial. He holds degrees in Theatre and Astrophysics from Michigan State University, and his MFA from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. More at: www.andrewhungerford.com.
Seth Asa Sengel (Sound Designer) is a singer-songwriter from Parsonsfield, Maine. He began his career working for Children's Theatre of Maine while attending Waynflete School ('93) and has since worked and performed in various capacities for arts organizations across the country. Seth Asa's work has been seen and heard at Cortland Repertory Theatre, FullStop Collective, Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Boise Contemporary Theater, The College of Idaho, Boise State University, Great Lakes Theatre Festival in Cleveland, and Open Waters Theatre Arts here in Maine. Seth's past designs at Portland Stage include HEROES, Collected Stories and I Am My Own Wife. He is ecstatic to be working once again with this awesome organization. For more information on Seth Asa, visit www.linkedin.com/in/sethasa.
Myles C. Hatch (Stage Manager) is currently enjoying his 13th season stage-managing with Portland Stage. During the past twenty two years, Myles has worked in stage management with such diversified theatres as The Freeport Shakespeare Festival (ME), Maine State Music Theatre (ME), The Theater at Monmouth (ME), Arden Theatre Company (PA), Baltimore Shakespeare Festival (MD), Everyman Theatre (MD), Rep Stage (MD), Horse Cave Theatre (KY), New Stage Theatre (MS), Round House Theatre (MD), Source Theatre Company (D.C.), Washington Stage Guild (D.C.), Washington Jewish Theatre (D.C.), Asolo Theatre Company (FL), Westport Country Playhouse (CT), and the YALE Summer Cabaret (CT). Myles will next stage-manage Wittenberg here at Portland Stage. Myles is a member of the Actors' Equity Association.