Monday, October 19, 2020


Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn.

NOËL COWARD IN TWO KEYS [Comedy/Hotel/One-Acts] A: Noël Coward; D: Vivian Matalon; S/L: William Ritman; C: Ray Diffen; P: Richard Barr, Charles Woodward; T: Ethel Barrymore Theatre; 2/17/74-6/29/74 (140)

“Come into the Garden, Maud” [Marriage/Romance]; “A Song at Twilight” [Homosexuality]

Anne Baxter, Thom Christopher.

Suite in Three Keys was the title of a 1966 London repertory bill by and starring Sir Noël Coward. One program was a full-length play, A Song at Twilight, the other was a pair of one-acts. In bringing the plays to New York in 1974, a year after Coward died, the producers dropped one of the short plays and put the two on a single bill, cutting the longer one by removing its intermission. The new title was Noël Coward in Two Keys.

The original British director was again at the helm, but the three principal roles played in London by Irene Worth, Lili Palmer and Coward were now in the hands of former movie star Anne Baxter and the husband-and-wife team of Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. Thom Christopher added a thespian fourth wheel in two minor roles.

Anne Baxter, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy.

Both plays are set in the same luxurious suite at a high-class Swiss hotel (something like what Neil Simon did in Plaza Suite). In the curtain raiser, “Come into the Garden, Maud,” Cronyn played Verner Conklin, a super-wealthy, middle-aged American businessman, with an avidity for golf, who’s on his yearly European vacation. With him is his wife, Anna Marie (Tandy), a pretentious social climber who behaves as if her husband’s boorish ways are an impediment to her snobbish aspirations. Enter a mature, attractive, but impoverished Italian noblewoman (Baxter) with whom Verner promptly falls in love. Deciding for once to be completely unconventional, he decides to drive off with the other woman in her Volkswagen.

Jessica Tandy.
Jack Kroll thought the piece “painfully thin,” but Clive Barnes called it “light and bright and quite deceptively simple” Neither the plot nor the dialogue “sparkled” for John Simon, though.

In the longer play, Cronyn was a famous old novelist, presumably modeled after Somerset Maugham, but with a heavy injection of Coward himself, who is staying at the hotel with his German secretary-wife (Tandy). He’s visited by an ex-mistress (Baxter) who wants his permission to print some of his old love letters in her autobiography. If he refuses, she threatens to expose some other missives of his, sent to a young man he once loved. (Note the similarity in plotting to Nightride, the previous entry in this series.)

Hume Cronyn, Anne Baxter.

The homosexual theme, seen as a semi-confessional exercise on Coward’s part, was viewed by some as affecting, though without Coward in the role it was less so than in the London version. A few thought the handling of the subject evasive and shallow, lacking compelling interest in the gay-lib 70s.

Douglas Watt called the evening “pure theatre and written with a flourish,” but “not particularly striking or original.” Barnes judged the plays “knowingly entertaining and yet still substantial.” The general feeling was that the work was lesser Coward, that his fabled talent to amuse had faded (he was 66 when he wrote the plays), and that only brilliant performances could save the show.

A number of critics lavished praise on the acting and direction, with Tandy collecting the best reviews. Even Christopher was considered good enough to win a Theatre World Award. There were, however, those who called the acting mediocre. Kroll, for example, wrote that the cast lacked “the Martini-marinated nuances to make you care about these pampered puppets.”

The show earned an Outer Critics Circle Award.