A&E

Devilishly good fun

Noël Coward's rollicking 'Fallen Angels' examines sex, love and friendship

In Noël Coward's "Fallen Angels," currently presented by TheatreWorks, longtime best friends Julia (Sarah Overman) and Jane (Rebecca Dines) share everything. They trade gossip, confide secrets and even reside in the same swanky London apartment building. They also share a past paramour: the irresistible Frenchman Maurice Duclos (Aldo Billingslea), who romanced them both years earlier in Italy. When he writes to let them know he'll be in town, the two besties are thrown into a tailspin of worry, giddy excitement and competition.

While both women are semi-happily married (Julia to Mark Anderson Phillips' Fred and Jane to Cassidy Brown's Willy), they're more fond of their sweet-but-clueless husbands than enamored with them. With the spouses away on a male-bonding golf trip, the ladies alternately plot together and against each other as they prepare for Maurice's arrival. As they guzzle champagne, they're intoxicated not only by their cocktails but also by their steamy memories. Rounding out the cast is Julia's new servant Saunders (Tory Ross), who has a habit of butting in with surprising but useful information.

The show, with its female characters embarking on independent adventures and engaging in pre- and extramarital trysts, must have been seen as thoroughly modern and scandalously risqué when Coward debuted it nearly a century ago. The script deftly expresses the women's lust for the carnal pleasures of life while never actually using any explicit language. Though it's mainly a frisky, fizzy farce, the play also offers some still-relevant insights into relationship and gender issues. Coward gently challenges the double standard that makes it acceptable for men to sow wild oats but shameful for women to do the same. It's interesting that the husbands seem far more concerned with what their wives may have done with Maurice years earlier than with the boredom and dissatisfaction they clearly express in the present. And though the husbands seem nice-enough gents, you can't blame the ladies for hoping to rekindle something with Maurice in order to spice up their pampered-but-dull existence. One finds oneself rooting not so much for the survival of their marriages as for their passionately charged friendship with each other.

The cast members are quite well suited to their roles, and they seem to be having a blast. Overman, Dines, Phillips and Brown all fully commit to the posh, plummy voice of the English upper class, while Billingslea gets to try on a Parisian accent (Richard Newton is credited as dialect coach and cultural consultant). Best of all is Ross' charming Scottish brogue, adding further color to her role as the know-it-all maid who witnesses the household hijinks. It's a great role, and Ross makes the most of it, utilizing both her impressive acting and singing skills.

Coward was as wonderful a songwriter as he was a playwright, and Ross, among other cast members, delivers the play's theme song "Meme les anges" ("Even the angels") with gusto. One only wishes there were room for more of his marvelous music.

The much-discussed Maurice doesn't appear until well into the play, and so much time and energy is spent building up the character that one assumes he will never live up to his description, but Billingslea proves that theory wrong, all charm and bonhomie topped with a Cheshire Cat grin. Ultimately, however, the success of the show rests decisively on the shoulders of Julia and Jane, and on the chemistry between the actors playing the two, as many scenes consist of little more than the pair talking. Happily, Overman and Dines prove a fantastic comedy duo, in sync both verbally and physically. The actors and director Robert Kelley deserve kudos for beautifully choreographing their every move and flamboyant flourish, from cigarette lighting to napkin flouncing. Their interplay crackles with the kind of manic, magic energy that can only come from live theater.

"Fallen Angels" is a perfect example of a drawing-room comedy, taking place entirely within the parlor of Julia's sumptuous flat (with attractive Art Deco-inspired set design by J.B. Wilson). Since comedy based on sex, love, and friendship is timeless, the plot could probably have been transferred to a modern-day setting, but TheatreWorks wisely keeps the show set in the era in which it was written: The Roaring '20s. Part of the appeal of a 1920s setting is the unmistakable fashion of the era, so a costume designer has her work cut out for her. Fumiko Bielefeldt does not disappoint, bedecking Julia and Jane in gorgeous flapper-style gowns, fetching feathered hats and chic casual outfits, while the men are dressed in traditional British tweed and argyle outdoor wear.

An evening with Noël Coward promises audiences a dose of British wit, sass and theatrical class, and TheatreWorks' version does not disappoint. "Fallen Angels" is devilishly good fun.

What: "Fallen Angels," by Noël Coward, presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: Through June 28, with shows Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; June 13, 14, 20, 21, 24 & 28 at 2 p.m.; June 16, 17 & 24 at 7:30 p.m.; June 14 & 21 at 7 p.m. Post-show discussion June 17 & 24 at 7:30 p.m.

Cost: $19-$68

Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-903-6000.

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