Noël Coward is comfortably at home at the Pasadena Playhouse, thanks to an ongoing partnership with award-winning director Art Manke, who helmed Coward's seldom-done "Fallen Angels" at the Playhouse last year. Manke, a notable Coward specialist, is acutely sensitive to the emotional depths beneath the playwright's signature sophistication and frothy wit. In "A Song at Twilight," one of Coward's last works, running at the Playhouse through April 13, the emotional resonances are closer to the surface — and Manke and a dream cast realize them to the fullest.
Coward wasn't "out," but neither was he rigidly closeted and his work adroitly teased at the harsh mores of the day. Part of his trilogy, "Suite in Three Keys," the frankly self-revelatory "Twilight" was first produced in London in 1966 — a year before Britain's long-held criminalization of homosexuality officially ended. In it, elderly misanthrope, "grand man of letters" and deeply repressed Sir Hugo Latymer (Bruce Davison) is recovering from a long illness at a posh Swiss hotel, attended by his solicitous German wife, Hilde (wonderful Roxanne Hart).
An unexpected communiqué from actress Carlotta, his former mistress, throws Hugo into a tizzy. Carlotta (Sharon Lawrence), from whom Hugo had parted decades before "in a blaze of mutual acrimony," is due to arrive for dinner at any moment.
Pitch-perfect Davison enters as Hugo with tousled white hair, neat white beard and mustache, fretful in silk robe and pajamas and chafing at Hilde's brisk injunctions against excitement. Hilde, no downtrodden cipher, rejects Hugo's increasingly venomous insults and, clearly more nurse and nanny than Hugo's wife of two decades, chides him to bathe. She infuriates him further by pointing out where the Maalox is, should Carlotta's visit upset him.
Suspicious of Carlotta's motives, Hugo's scathing response to Hilde's refusal to cancel her dinner plans with a friend and act as a buffer when Carlotta arrives hints more at fear than anger. (Davison never overdoes either Hugo's vitriol or his shuttered vulnerability.)
Now well-groomed and armored in a velvet smoking jacket and ascot, Hugo greets Carlotta with trepidation and readiness to go on the offense. Carlotta's opening salvo: a casual mention of Hugo's unflattering comments about her in his recently published autobiography. Fierce and funny exchanges are broken occasionally by barely acknowledged moments of shared memories. The facade of civility thins further as the pair trade insults over dinner, served by handsome waiter Felix (played with crisp aplomb by Zach Bandler), the target of Hugo's earlier furtive flirtation.
Sharon Lawrence, slim and chic in rust-red couture, is a revelation as a 60-something, still-glamorous actress holding age at bay with vehement determination, plastic surgery and special injections — and holding her own against Hugo's acidic disdain. Lawrence gives the smallest gestures meaning, adjusting a pillow behind her back, draping a languid arm along the back of the sofa, casual movements that heighten a sense of barely repressed emotion. Hugo's barbs hit home, but only with the briefest of hesitations does Lawrence's Carlotta show it.
When Carlotta reveals that she wants Hugo's permission to include his love letters to her in her own soon-to-be-published life story, he refuses, and she drops the real bombshell: She has other letters in her possession, written by Hugo to Perry, now deceased, the only "true love" of his life, whom Hugo had abandoned with cruel indifference as he "resculpted" his public image. She intends to give them to a biographer intent on writing a scholarly analysis of Hugo and his work.
Hugo accuses her of blackmail, but Carlotta, who long ago realized that Hugo had used their relationship to bolster his straight public persona, isn't after money. She wants an acknowledgment of his betrayals and the damage that he has done by closing off a fundamental part of himself, an act that fed his mordant wit but soured his humanity.
"Memory is implacable," she says. "It can forget joy. It can't forget humiliation."
But as it turns out, there are untold truths all around. When Hilde returns, slightly drunk after dinner out with her friend and takes in what has unfolded, her comic tipsiness by no means obscures the clarity of her insight. It simply gives it ruthless voice — and Hart plumbs Hilde's steely depths and unsuspected self-awareness with consummate skill — leaving in its catalytic wake a shock of recognition and a reminder of the all-too-human complexities of self that shape and reshape even long-term relationships. The closing moments of poignant exposure will linger.
What:"A Song at Twilight"
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
When:8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends April 13.
Admission: $44 to $64.
More info: (626) 356-7529, http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.