In 1954, Noel Coward wrote in his diary: "I have been carefully reading Wilenski's 'Lives of the Impressionists' and really no burlesque however extravagant could equal the phrases he uses to describe the 'Abstract' boys. I am grateful to him for giving me a lot of hilarious material."
Coward turned that material into his satire of the modern art world, "Nude with Violin." A second-rate work by a first-rate comic playwright, it is nonetheless receiving a sparkling production at Everyman Theatre in celebration of Coward's centennial.
There's a theory in comedy that to be really funny, a stunt should be repeated three times. Coward repeated his stunt -- a revelation about the work of a recently deceased famous artist -- four times in three acts, and the humor wanes. Unlike his many comedies that bristle with insights into the foibles of personal relationships, "Nude with Violin" is a one-trick pony, and a slow-moving pony at that.
The play's stunt takes the form of four letters written by the artist to a colorful quartet of characters. As the long-estranged family of the late painter gathers in his Paris studio, the recipients of the letters appear one by one, each wanting something different from the artist's heirs.
The bearer of the first letter is the artist's loyal valet, Sebastien, a multi-lingual servant so oily smooth, he'd be equally skilled as a con artist or diplomat. Grover Gardner -- who also co-directed the production with Vincent Lancisi -- plays Sebastien as a little of both. He also gets the preponderance of the s bon mots (although there are fewer here than usual). "One lives and learns, doesn't one?" the artist's widow remarks. "That certainly is one of the more prevalent human delusions, madame," Sebastien replies.
The other letters are in the possession of a highly theatrical Russian princess, played with hilarious overstatement by Julie-Ann Elliott; a cockney former chorus girl, played with blowzy bonhomie by Barbara Pinolini; and a Jamaican member of "an obscure but fairly militant religious sect," played by Kirtracy Hill, in what is little more than a walk-on role.
Compared to this crew, the artist's widow and grown children are the epitome of blandness. Indeed, their drabness appears to be part of Coward's point: Whatever anyone may eventually feel about the artist, no one can deny that, as Sebastien says, he enjoyed "life to the full." In contrast, the family he abandoned three decades earlier merely drifts through life. But such observations of human nature seem almost incidental; primarily Coward seems bent on superficially lambasting modern art.
As the befuddled widow, who has a tendency to babble on about any irrelevancy that pops into her head, Carol Mason comes across as such an ordinary English housewife, it's impossible to imagine what her late husband ever saw in her. Her bully of a son, as played by Nigel Reed, is even drearier than she is. Only the artist's open-minded romantic daughter, played with refreshing spunk by Jacqueline Underwood, seems to learn anything from her father's free-spirited example.
The family's ally throughout their ordeal is the artist's dealer, the character at whom Coward directs most of his contempt. Stan Weiman plays this presumed authority with a combination of fatherliness and pomposity, becoming more and more overbearing and distraught as his predicament worsens. The dealer doesn't get the full brunt of Coward's ridicule, however. Some of that is reserved for the press, in the form of a pushy Life magazine reporter, played by Jerry Richardson with a bit too much hayseed exuberance.
While the 1950s period costumes (by Rosemary Pardee) and attractive scenery and lighting (by Daniel Ettinger) are lovely, neither stylish trappings nor skilled performances can make a masterpiece out of Coward's mere bauble.
Maybe if the play were shorter -- it might help if the co-directors cut one of the two intermissions -- a bauble would suffice. But as a full-length evening, "Nude with Violin" is far from Coward at his best.
Granted, any Coward is better than no Coward at all. Yet this thin -- though long -- script hardly seems worthy of the fine work and attention to detail that Everyman has lavished on it. And it is hardly the best tribute for the late master's 100th birthday.
'Nude with Violin'
Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2: 30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 10
Pub Date: 9/22/99