By Regan Batuello
It was standing room only at Brecknock Hall this past weekend for the Northeast Stage production of “Bottom’s Up: The Private Lives of Noël Coward,” an homage to the late Noël Coward written by the late Daniel Rosenblatt of Southold and directed by James Pritchard, his (very much alive) partner of many years. So this production is a labor of love and therefore must be viewed not just in the harsh light of theatrical criticism but also as a posthumous gift to the community and to the memory of a cherished friend.
“Bottom’s Up” is a series of monologues interspersed with songs that relate, sometimes, to the monologues that precede them. We meet Noël at three “ages of man.” The elder Noël, played with a gentle elegance by Terry Brockbank, the middle Noël played earnestly by John Tramontana, and the young Noël portrayed by Dan Yaiullo in an uneven but sometimes quite brilliant effort (keep it up, Mr. Yaiullo — you have something there). We are also visited by three of the most influential actresses of the time, every one a brilliant star in the firmament of theater and films and all influential to the work of Noël Coward.
Tallulah Bankhead was considered to be one of the greatest actresses of her time; we know her now as a larger-than-life personality who never quite made the transition from stage to talkies. I was sad to see the part of a woman who by all accounts was not only a great actress but also smart, thoughtful and funny written as a drunken bawd, but my, what a wonderful drunken bawd Jenifer Corwin treats us to. Her scene and song are a tour de force. We also meet Vivien Leigh — poor sad, mad Vivian Leigh — in life much too big a personality for her own brilliant self to contain, much less a very young actress, Anna Aguilar. The marvelous Marlene Dietrich is played with a quiet but steely bravura by Beverly Gregory.
The monologue — standing on a stage by yourself and talking for 10 or 15 minutes — is not an easy feat. A musical theater song is just that, too: a monologue set to music. This is a play that would stymie very seasoned actors. There are two reasons for this, the first being that with the exception of the butler (a fun part that could have been explored more fully in the spirit of the great theatrical butlers of the time), these are all the most brilliant, charismatic people of a generation. It’s a lot to live up to, and very difficult to avoid the trap of caricature. How do you give an audience the essence of a great man or woman without getting caught clutching their mannerisms as lifelines?
The other thing that makes this play so difficult is that nothing happens. All of the action takes place offstage and we, the audience, are told about it through chatty, occasionally poignant recollection. There is a lot of name-dropping that is entertaining in a “don’t-I-feel-clever” kind of way. And it’s fun to remember (or learn, you students of the theater) some of the greats of an era gone by. While we hear about the loves and conflicts and complexities of being Noël Coward, essentially a very private person who was drawn to fame and fortune as a moth to a flame, this viewer longed to see some of these characters appear, rather than just recollected. I left the theater happy to have been reminded of some of the great shimmering stars of the past, and went out into the chilly night enveloped in a warm blanket of nostalgia.
Bottoms Up: The Private
Lives of Noël Coward
Presented by Northeast Stage
Brecknock Hall, 1500 Brecknock Road, Greenport.
Performances continue Nov. 12, 13 and 14. Seating is limited. For tickets, call 765-1409.