The secret of the master

In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I review Westport Country Playhouse’s revival of Noël Coward’s A Song at Twilight and Second Stage’s revival of Jon Robin Baitz’s The Substance of Fire. Here’s an excerpt.
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Rarely seen in this country since it ran on Broadway in 1974, “A Song at Twilight” was produced earlier this year on both coasts, at Hartford Stage and Pasadena Playhouse. The Hartford Stage version, directed by Mark Lamos, has now transferred to another Connecticut theater, Mr. Lamos’ own Westport Country Playhouse. Anyone who supposes that changing times have turned “A Song at Twilight” into a hoary period piece is in for a big surprise. Coward called it “far and away the best-constructed play I have ever written.” That overstates the case, but it’s definitely one of his best.
A%20SONG.jpgExplicitly based on the life of Somerset Maugham, “A Song at Twilight” is a portrait of Hugo Latymer (Brian Murray), a venerable novelist and sometime playwright who married his secretary (Mia Dillon) in middle age and now is wreathed in irascible respectability. Enter Carlotta (Gordana Rashovich), an angry ex-girlfriend who comes bearing a purseful of letters that Latymer sent in his indiscreet youth to the alcoholic male lover whom he dumped in order to live a straight life….
I last saw “A Song at Twilight” at the Berkshire Theater Festival in a 2008 production by Vivian Matalon, who had previously directed Coward himself in the London premiere. While that revival, which also featured Ms. Dillon, was impressive, it was accompanied by a Coward-penned curtain-raiser, a satirical playlet called “Come into the Garden, Maud” that was amusing but superfluous. “A Song at Twilight,” which runs for 90 tightly written minutes, is far more effective when presented on its own, and Mr. Lamos’ cast acts it with uncommon delicacy and poise….
Like “A Song at Twilight,” “The Substance of Fire,” directed by Trip Cullman, revolves around a cranky old litterateur, but the resemblance stops there. In “The Substance of Fire,” the irascible gentleman in question, Isaac Geldhart (John Noble), is a Holocaust survivor who escaped to America, where he started a highbrow publishing house that is now in imminent danger of bankruptcy, much to the distress of his three children (Daniel Eric Gold, Carter Hudson and Halley Feiffer), who wrest control of the stock from their father at the end of the first act.
Up to that point, “The Substance of Fire” is your standard feuding-family play, tightly packed with glib retorts, and at intermission I expected to pan it. But things get vastly more interesting when Isaac, who has retreated to his book-lined apartment and is showing signs of what appears to be fast-encroaching senility, is visited by a briskly officious social worker (Charlayne Woodard) whose task is to determine whether or not he is competent to look after himself. They, too, spend the second act sparring, but in a wholly original and absorbing way…
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Read the whole thing here.

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