Category: Archive

Theater Review Uh Oh, ‘Coward!’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

OH, COWARD! by Roderick Cook. Directed by Br. Augustine Towey, C.M. Featuring William B. Hubert II, Brendan Powers, and Maggie Runfola. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St. Through March 14

Following a wittily glittering production of Dion Boucicault’s "The Shaughraun," and not too long after the long-running "The Irish and How They Got That Way," the estimable Irish Repertory Theatre has, for unknown reasons, taken on the look and feel of a second-rate cruise ship.

The occasion is the group’s transfer, from Buffalo’s Irish Classical Theatre Company, of a decidedly lackluster staging of Roderick Cook’s routinely serviceable revue, "Oh, Coward!" Bearing the explanatory legend, "Based on the Life and Works of Noel Coward," directly below the title, the show presents very little actual information drawn from the writer’s personal history, and, as a stage piece, offers very little in the way of a viable life of its own. .

If not one, but two Irish-oriented theater groups needed justification for tackling the product of the writer who is possibly the most obstinately English of all 20th century stage artists, it can probably be found in the assertion, made in Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rogers’s new book, "How to be Irish," that Coward had an Irish grandmother in the person of one Mary Kathleen Lynch, a native of County Kerry.

"Oh, Coward!," originally done off-Broadway in late 1972, with Cook in the 3-performer cast, ran nearly nine months and has been periodically revived ever since, primarily in regional theaters. Its track record would seem to indicate that, given the right actors, the show can be made to work.

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The reason it comes to life so seldom at the Irish Rep has everything to do with the youth and apparent inexperience of the performers who have journeyed down from upstate to bring us their take on Coward.

Roderick Cook knew Noel Coward, so well, in fact, that when the Circle-in-the-Square Theater revived the classic American comedy, "The Man Who Came to Dinner," which contains a character based on the famous Briton, Cook played the role to good effect.

The problem with this edition of "Oh, Coward!" is similar to the one that jinxed the first production of Stephen Sondheim’s "Merrily We Roll Along" about a decade ago. In the first version of the show, a cast of very young performers played characters who began in middle age and then grew younger as the show progressed and moved backward in time. Hearing fresh-faced young actors singing about the loss of their illusions and compromises life had imposed upon them tended to enrage and alienate the audiences and the show died a quick death.

The people about whom Coward wrote, the characters in his plays and the individuals he had to have had in his mind when he wrote his songs and sketches, were nothing if not experienced, world-weary and even terminally jaded.

The three young performers from Buffalo, William B. Hubert II, Brendan Powers, and Maggie Runfola, go through the soul-dead motions of songs like "Poor Little Rich Girl," "If Love Were All," and "A Marvelous Party," but there’s little or nothing behind the words, and, even worse, they manage, much of the time, to express and betray the essential shallowness of Coward’s sophistication and the lethal brittleness of much that he wrote.

It would be unfair to expect youthful American actors and singers to rise to the performance level Gertrude Lawrence and Coward himself achieved with this material, but it seems reasonable enough to hope for a certain measure of grace, wit, and musicality, qualities that the cast of this particular "Oh, Coward!" comes up strikingly short.

Cook has organized his Coward samplings around "themes," including travel, theater, love, the music hall, women, England, and so forth, and sometimes the material feels distinctly shoehorned into place, fitting awkwardly at best.

Not that the production, with direction credited to Brother Augustine Towey, C.M., director of the theater department at Niagara University, doesn’t have its pleasures. Songs like "Someday I’ll Find You" and "I’ll Follow My Secret Heart" are difficult to extinguish completely, even with mediocre delivery, and much the same could be said of "Mad About the Boy" and even "You Were There."

The production’s spare set design, attributed to the Irish Rep’s artistic director, Charlotte Moore, consists mainly of a faux-marble checkerboard floor of black-and-white, supporting, of course, a grand piano, and fragments of furniture which come and go as needed.

Rusty Magee, the witty, elegant backbone of the Rep’s musical efforts, is listed in the theater’s program as being "on piano." With Magee having encountered a "scheduling conflict," the piano bench for the actual engagement, which runs through the Sunday matinee of March 14, is occupied by Stephen Frances Vasta, who, in the press previews, seemed, understandably enough, to be somewhat harried and just a bit underrehearsed.

The three cast members of "Oh, Coward!" appear in the first act wearing various items of period casual attire, plus-fours included, and then, in the interval, change into elegant evening wear. In both cases, unfortunately, the impression they give is that of children who have rummaged through their grandparents’ s trunk in the family attic.

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