Laila Robins, Ben Houghton,A Song at Twilight

Laila Robins & Ben Houghton

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opens its 2016 season with Noël Coward’s A Song At Twilight, directed by Paul Mullins. Coward wrote it in 1965, the first in a trio of plays that take place in a single suite in a Swiss hotel (you’re welcome, Neil Simon), called the Suite in Three Keys. He wanted “to act once more before I fold my bedraggled wings,” as he said, and he wrote himself a juicy role here.

As the play opens, the hotel waiter Felix (played by Ben Houghton) is playing a grand piano and singing, a service for which extra tipping is undoubtedly required. The suite’s guests are Sir Hugo Latymer (Edmond Genest), an eminent author in his early 70s, and his somewhat dowdy, one might even say serviceable, wife Hilde (Alison Weller). Hugo is noticeably slowing. He’s had health problems, and Hilde has added nurse to her duties as secretary and chief organizer.

She’s preparing to go out; he wants her to stay. It isn’t because he wants her company, as his waspishness makes clear, but because an old mistress he hasn’t seen in decades is coming for dinner, and he doesn’t want to be alone with her. Carlotta Gray is an actress who had a middling career. Why is she coming? What does she want? Money?

When Carlotta (Laila Robins) enters, she’s glamour and energy itself—upswept hair, an acid yellow sheath, and sparkling stilettos. Perhaps with a wee bit of glee, Hilde leaves him to her. The two old flames’ point-counterpoint dialog is full of Coward’s characteristic wit and verve.

Hugo’s break-up with Carlotta so long ago appears still painful to her, as was the uncharitable characterization of her he wrote in his autobiography. Now Carlotta is writing her own memoir, and what she wants is much more significant than cash. Since the era in which the play was written the issues people want to keep secret may have evolved, but the capacity for guilt and shame remains with us and has a powerful impact.

Robins and Weller fully inhabit the two female characters and deliver Coward’s rather fussy and formal dialog (by 2016 standards) convincingly. At one point Hugo calls Carlotta “feline,” and indeed Robins moves around the stage much like a cat playing with her mouse. Weller’s character has a German accent, which she uses as an opportunity to pause occasionally, as a person speaking a foreign language would, which accommodates Coward’s syntax. These actors’ natural delivery contrasts with Genest’s more wooden performance, in which he occasionally sounds like he’s reading lines.

Houghton’s piano-playing and singing ability are used to good effect. During the intermission, waiter Felix, not a stagehand, clears the dinner service, plays the piano softly, and exits with the bar cart as the play resumes.

A Song At Twilight Noël Coward play, directed by Paul Mullins

Production credits to Alison Cote (production stage manager), Nikki Delhomme (costume designer), Michael Giannitti (lighting), and Brittany Vasta (set designer). Access the theater’s excellent Know the Show guide.

For tickets, call the STNJ box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the box office online.