Three brief encounters

Tonight at 8:30

By Noel Coward
Directed by John Avino
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church Theatre
7 West 55th St. (841-5455)
Equity showcase (closes May 12)
Review by Julie Halpern

Tonight at 8:30 was conceived by Noel Coward in 1935, as a vehicle for himself and Gertrude Lawrence. Three of the original nine plays, Hands Across the Sea, Still Life, and We Were Dancing, have stood the test of time. Although the plays are somewhat talky for today's audiences, director John Avino and the talented ensemble brought Coward's vapid characters to life, bringing a warmth and gentle humor to the proceedings.

Hands Across The Sea, a drawing-room comedy about jaded Londoners' attempts to entertain guests they once stayed with but whose names they cannot remember, received a witty, tongue-in-cheek treatment here. It's full of anecdotes from those long-ago days when the sun never set on the British Empire, and such exotic places as Malaysia and Singapore are the major topics of conversation. J.C. Sansevere was every inch the stylish sophisticate as Lady Maureen (Piggie) Gilpin, and her winning personality made the brittle Piggie actually likable. John Rowell, as her equally priggish husband Peter, seemed to step right out of a screwball comedy film of the period. Marie Bridget Dundon was delightfully dotty as Mrs. Wadhurst, a guest from Malaysia, and John McLean was charmingly wry as Mr. Wadhurst. Sheila Bledsoe contributed comic relief as the glamorous lush, Clare Wedderburn.

Still Life, the best known of the three, was later made into the immensely successful film Brief Encounter in 1945. The story takes place in the cafe of a London train station where Dr. Alec Harvey (Rowell) and Laura Jesson (Sansevere) meet by accident when Jesson gets a cinder in her eye and Harvey removes it. Although both are married, they fall in love and meet each Thursday in the cafe for over a year. When the time comes for the relationship to end - the doctor accepts a job abroad - the breakup is excruciating for both, and their last meeting in the cafe is heartbreaking, particularly when a gossipy neighbor (Bledsoe) sits down with them, depriving them of their last moments of happiness. Sansevere was a gentle yet passionate Laura, but Rowell's jovial doctor never seemed to be totally committed to the relationship. Janet Luhrs, as Myrtle Bagot, the proprietress of the cafe, and Jeff Burchfield as her ardent conductor lover, Albert, provided some hilariously ribald moments.

We Were Dancing, the shortest and weakest of the three plays, is a study of the idle rich in the Far East. Wealthy socialite Louise Charteris (Ivanna Cullinan) is ready to abandon Hubert, her husband of 13 years (Richard Storm), after just one dance with Karl Sandys (Rowell). As the evening wears on, she begins to find him tiresome, and returns to Hubert. Cullinan turned in a winning performance as the madcap Louise - elegant and refined. Storm was very funny as the long-suffering Hubert.

Christina McConway's authentic sets and Sharon Shuford's flattering lights worked beautifully with Pamela Harris's luxurious costumes.

With Matt Brooks, Kathryn Cockrill, Jim Farrin, Kyle Knauf, and Gibson Knott.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 1
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2000 Julie Halpern