On Theater: Getting a rise from 'Fallen'

One might be forgiven, when approaching a 1924 Noel Coward play, for anticipating a lengthy chat session sprinkled with vintage British wit of the period that probably would be lost in translation on 21st-century American audiences.

One would, therefore, be pleasantly surprised to find that "Fallen Angels," one of Coward's lesser works (compared with "Private Lives" or "Blithe Spirit"), is a down-and-out laugh riot with two actresses reviving memories of the TV antics of such comic geniuses as Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball.

Credit, foremost, goes to director Art Manke, a serious interpreter of Coward's works (this is his seventh), who lights a farcical fire under the aforementioned actresses for what clearly is the funniest 15 minutes of stage comedy seen in Laguna all year — a drunken skirmish between the two actresses that's extraordinarily funny.

Certainly the plot doesn't inspire that sort of theatrical dynamite. It centers on a pair of married ladies, each with five-year unions, about to be visited by an oversexed Frenchman with whom each dallied briefly prior to wedlock. But as they imbibe large quantities of liquor in preparation for the reunion, the gloves come off, along with the proper British inhibitions.

The hostess for this impromptu romp, one Julia Sterroll, is played by Colette Kilroy, who strives to cling to her dignity and reserve while becoming further and further soused. Watching her scratch and claw for some semblance of propriety while boozing her way to oblivion is hugely satisfying.

The true star of this raucous revival, however, is Katie MacNichol as Jane Banbury, Julia's guest, who not only offers a master class on stage inebriation, but romps through some hilarious physical gyrations along the way. This freewheeling performance, often with arms and legs akimbo, is absolutely hilarious and worthy of an immediate standing ovation.

The women's husbands, properly outraged, have less impact on the proceedings, appearing in early cameos and later extended scenes. Mike Ryan plays Julia's spouse as an emotionally insulated boor with gruff, single-syllable answers to every query.

The other mate will be familiar to Laguna audiences — Andrew Barnicle, who served two decades as the playhouse's artistic director. Barnicle projects a stiff-backed, no-nonsense British gentleman who may very well be a caricature, but he's a sturdy one, bellowing in rage as his impeccable facade is pricked.

As if "Fallen Angels" needed any further comic relief, we're given Mary-Pat Green as the housemaid Saunders, who appears to be an expert on, and have an opinion about, everything in sight. As in Coward's "Blithe Spirit," the maid nearly steals the show — but not from the likes of Kilroy and MacNichol.

Finally, there's the illustrious Frenchman, who appears with a flourish after lengthy anticipation. J. Paul Boehmer enacts this prancing dandy with practiced mannerisms, fully capturing his brief encounter (yes, that's another Coward title) on stage.

Set designer Tom Buderwitz has fashioned a beautiful "blue room" to house the farcical fable. The period costumes by David K. Mickelsen and lighting effects by Peter Maradudin add further authenticity.

"Fallen Angels" may not rank overly high in the Coward chronology, but Manke's over-the-top interpretation will keep audiences laughing out loud in its rollicking revival at the Laguna Playhouse.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Fallen Angels"

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays until Nov. 3, with additional performances at 7 p.m. Oct. 20 and 2 p.m. Oct. 24 and 31

Cost: $36 to $66

Information: (949) 497-2787 or http://www.lagunaplayhouse.comhttp://www.lagunaplayhouse.com

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