Local actors have a field day with the multiple roles in Appleseed’s Tonight at 8:30, a trio of one-acts
Noel Coward, the man who modestly admitted to a talent to amuse, knew the joys of repertory. For many years in England’s resident, repertory companies, an actor who played a king one night would do his best to conjure a beggar the next night. During the hungry 1930s, Coward composed a series of 10 short plays to keep himself and his pals employed. The 10 could be shuffled around depending on the availability of costumes, or the whim of the performer, with any three appearing under the umbrella titles of Tonight at 8:30 or This Afternoon at 2:30. Not everybody would appear in every show, but when they did they’d be different. What an audience got each time could be unpredictable, but Coward’s name guaranteed surprise and fun. And it still does here, as demonstrated by Appleseed Productions’ current mounting at the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave.
While Coward and friends designed the one-acts to be done on the cheap, director Dan Stevens and Appleseed have invested wisely and well in Barbara Toman’s costumes and Karen Procopio’s wigs. Female players enjoy a wider range, like lovely Crystal Roupas, who is in a slinky, revealing negligee in one act and turns up as a mousy, gum-chewing parlor maid 20 minutes later. It’s nearly the same for the men. Strange to say, male actors we’re used to seeing bald come out much funnier with toupees, not just the rugs that look like dead cats but even the flattering ones.
The Coward one-acts were revived to much audience acclaim two years ago at Canada’s Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Director Stevens was prudent to avoid the playlet highlighted there, Still Life, the sketch that became the beloved adultery movie, Brief Encounter. There’s just not enough of the movie in that one. Instead, Stevens’ choices gain from novelty: Most people have never seen these.
They arrive in a progression of moral complexity and dramaturgy we expect. The 25-minute Red Peppers comes first, really an anecdote about backstage squabbles. Second is the 35-minute Ways and Means, about the idle, parasitical rich too feckless to pay their debts. And finally the 40-minute Hands Across the Sea, a bracing satire on status, snobbery and cruelty.
In Red Peppers, George (Tom Minion) and Lily Pepper (Anne Fitzgerald) are an over-thehill vaudeville comedy team wearing sailor suits in a provincial backwater theater. Their sassy banter (too awful to be reprinted here) falls into the so-bad-they’re good slot with the right timing. Returned to their unkempt dressing room they morph into an unfunny Punch-and-Judy act about how tawdry the act has become. “Good enough for me mum and dad before the Great War,” offers George in a self-defeating response.
What we have here in miniature is an essay on comedy, like Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. While abrasion between the Peppers is what sparks the jokes, the husband and wife still cling together in this danse macabre when threatened by outsiders. In a casting visual pun, corpulent Mr. Edwards (William Edward White) advises them not to throw their weight around. Then there’s the patronizing has-been West End star, Mabel Grace (Nora O’Dea), and the conniving snake of an accompanist, Bert Bentley (Lanny Freshman). In the end, there’s more to dread outside the marriage than the conflict within it.
With a drastic revamping of scenic designer William Edward White’s set, we are transported to the tony Côte d’Azure, where the leisure class, one-tenth of 1 percent of the population, might play while much of 1936 Europe was unemployed. Ways and Means’ glamorous young couple, the Cartwrights, is usually seen in bed, a reminder that they have no intention of getting up and going to work. At breakfast handsome Toby (Michael Carroll, who had a walk-on in Red Peppers) has just lost 50 British pounds at the gaming tables, and tells his attractive wife Stella (Crystal Roupas) he doesn’t know how to make up for it. All the usual begging, borrowing and collection won’t do.
They can’t collect debts, either. Lord Chapworth, nicknamed “Chaps” (Alan Stillman), owes them piles of money, but he’s just lost more gambling by being so unlucky as to sit next to the never-seen Pearl Brandt, a name that will recur in the playlet. Chaps is also oblivious to Stella’s proffered sexual allure, suggesting closure on the seduction front. Gaston (Tom Minion) shows in two welldressed female guests, a ditsy émigré Russian, Princess Elena Krassiloff (Nora O’Dea) and the more surefooted landowner, Olive Lloyd- Ransom (Betsy York), who informs Toby and Stella that they will have to leave because other guests are arriving tomorrow. Gaston confirms that their un-asked-for train tickets will be ready. Only the faithful Nanny (Anne Fitzgerald) will lend them 7 pounds, hardly enough.
Later than night when Toby goes to the baccarat table with what pittance he has left, his place is taken by the ubiquitous Pearl Brandt, who wins 170,000 francs and Toby loses everything. Toby suggests to Stella that perhaps he should rob and murder Ms. Brandt, if only he had the gall to pull it off. Shortly after they are invaded by a thief named Stevens (Lanny Freshman), from the London working-class neighborhood of Walthamstow. A plot hatched with such a resourceful bloke offers the only solution they can muster.
The set returns to England for Hands Across the Sea. The Mayfair drawing room of the Gilpins indicates both affluence and untidiness: Spare high-heeled shoes keep appearing under people’s bottoms. Commander Peter Gilpin (William Edward White) and his hostess wife Maureen, also known as “Piggy” (Nora O’Dea), are world travelers who like to entertain. Only they can’t always remember whom they have invited. In Hands Across the Sea most of the families have military associations, and even though a serious-looking young man, Walters (Michael Carroll), arrives with a tube filled with what appear to be plans or blueprints, no one ever asks him what or who has sent him on this mission.
His is not the painful part, however. After Piggy receives a call from the Rawlingsons, she expects them to appear shortly. Instead the guests who arrive are a couple of uncomfortable Americans, the Wadhursts (Tom Minion and Betsy York). They’re dressed to attend the Grange meeting, or possibly the State Fair. No matter, people talk to them and pay no attention to their answers. Sharpest is a haughty, upper class-dame with a long cigarette holder, Clare Wedderburn (Anne Fizgerald), who delivers the most acidulous of the playlet’s zingers. Everyone is so unaware of the Wadhursts’ presence that a passed telephone carelessly leads to a cord wrapped around the wife’s neck.
The middle play, Ways and Means, comes out the weakest. Articulation of the complicated motivation is so hard to follow that it pays to have read the text before arriving at the theater.
Overall, however, Tonight at 8:30 (whose Syracuse curtain is 8 p.m.) represents a labor of love for veteran director Stevens, who has relied on old friends in multiple roles. Anne Fitzgerald fares the best, as she disappears into three contrasting parts, equaled by Tom Minion and William Edward White, the most verbally dexterous player. Reliable veteran Nora O’Dea, Lanny Freshman and Alan Stillman also contribute handsomely, as do newcomers Betsy York and Michael Carroll.
This production runs through March 19. See Times Table for information.