“This week, she’s a nun—the one who gets captured by the Japanese!”
As a young housemaid (Jennifer Carrier) tells the soap opera-ish cinema exploits of screen star Miranda Frayle (Emily Cannon-Brown) to the dour butler (Robert Taylor), the curious melange that makes up the style of Noel Coward comes to the fore in the opening minutes of Relative Values, onstage at Masquers Playhouse in Point Richmond: a cross (or cross-eyed look) between comedy of manners and a deadpan, decorous campiness.
Frayle’s coming from Hollywood to the precincts of the gentry served by the backstairs folk assembled; she’s the betrothed of Nigel, Earl of Marshwood, young nobleman with many past loves.
Between Crestwell, the savvy butler, and Countess Felicity (Loralee Windsor), Lord Nigel’s doting mother, it’s hard to choose who’s the driest. When Crestwell considers the issue on everybody’s mind, Nigel marrying below his station, he muses, “Class . . . I’ve forgotten what that means. I’ll look it up in the crossword dictionary.”
“Ever since the news came, you’ve been behaving like a tragedy queen!” Lady Marshwood’s personal maid, “Moxie” (Marilyn Hughes) does indeed look under the weather. Asking to leave Felicity’s service immediately, she refuses at first to tell exactly why she’s so upset. But, when the truth comes out, it seems there’s a more awkward kinship at hand than the wedding in the works. And the secretive, bend-over-backwards adjustments to cover for the embarrassments that could happen, make this a merrier melodrama than any Miranda acted out on the silver screen. Drawling Texan glamor-puss Don Lucas (Kevin Hazelton), her former leading man in more ways than one, arrives on set, evading the Girl Guides from the local village in the shrubbery, stalking autographs, and slips into the manor, palling up to servants and peerage alike, as he maneuvers to confront Miranda about her engagement.
“I ran across a movie one afternoon called Relative Values,” notes Taylor, who also directed, “I began to think that it would make a wonderful play. While watching the credits, I was surprised and slightly embarrassed to see that it was based on a Noel Coward play . . . I found it in a collection of his later writings.”
Relative Values may be a bit of a rarity, but Coward’s sophisticated comedies form a part of the usual repertoire of community theater troupes—and are a problematic choice, due to the difficulty of putting an amateur-semi-pro ensemble onstage that can sustain the tone and timing of Sir Noel strewing his gems.
Which is why it’s a pleasure to watch the Masquers do just that, each player deftly parrying each comic thrust with appropriate repartee. Everyone holds his own in the cast.
And the opening night audience was with the Masquers all the way—proof that the mission of community theater is community enjoyment.
“It’s not the first time an English peer has married an actress; in the old days, they hardly stopped!” The quips and asides never stop, even slyly comparing the predicament to the best of English stage comedy—to Mr. Somerset Maugham (then a rival, later bosom friend of fellow-survivor Sir Noel).
The last word is voiced by delightful Loralee Windsor, ever-poised as aptly-named Felicity: “You must pretend that nothing has happened—and when you analyse it, not very much has!”
Masquers Playhouse presents Relative Values, Fri. and Sat, 8 p.m., at 105 Park Place, Point Richmond, through May 6. Tickets $15. For more information, call 232-4031 or see www.masquers.org. ?