Tonight at 8:30 has a debonair ring as titles go, evoking tuxedos and tiaras. Not surprisingly, it belongs to a group of works by Noel Coward that opens the Williamstown Theatre Festival's 46th season. The production will be a rare outing for six of the 10 one-acts that Coward wrote in the mid-1930s for Gertrude Lawrence and him to play in repertory. And although Ann Reinking and Sybil Burton might seem an unlikely pair to have a hand in resuscitating the neglected plays, they convinced Michael Ritchie, artistic director of the Festival, to dust them off.
"Michael [Ritchie] and I had been trying to get together to see if there was anything we could do," says Ann Reinking, 50, who is directing half of the one-acts. "I suggested Tonight at 8:30 because when I was a kid, I actually saw Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward do it -- I think it was the Hallmark Hall of Fame, but I'm not sure. They had Red Peppers on, which I loved. It always stuck in my mind."
When Ritchie, who is married to Kate Burton, the daughter of Richard and Sybil Burton, invited the Tony-winning choreographer and co director of Fosse to work at Williamstown this summer, he asked what she'd like to do. High on Reinking's list was Tonight at 8:30.
It wasn't the first time Ritchie had heard about the plays, says Reinking. "You know," he said, "my mother-in-law has been talking about this forever: "There's this lovely play by Noel Coward. It's called Tonight at 8:30. It's unique. It's different.'" He told Reinking, "I've got to read it, because too many people are telling me about this evening."
After agreeing to revive the plays, Ritchie enlisted Michael Greif, 41, who directed Rent, to stage the companion bill. The threesomes, however, are different from Coward's original mix. Reinking's evening, which stars Bill Irwin and Charlotte d'Amboise, features Red Peppers, the mini-musical on third-rate vaudevillians she had so enjoyed as a girl; Shadow Play, a romantic musical fantasy; and Star Chamber, which was performed only once at a matinee before Coward decided it didn't work and pulled it off, according to his biographer Sheridan Morley. Greif's portion features Family Album, Hands Across the Sea, and We Were Dancing. (One of the plays left on the shelf, Still Life, was later the basis for the film "Brief Encounter.") The actors playing the sophisticates include Blythe Danner, Stephen Collins, and Joan Copeland. Since the groupings vary from Coward's original, each director conceived the order for the evening. "It seemed quite natural, given these plays, what the movement might be," Greif says of his trio. "The evening for me seems to be a move toward real expression and real freedom, and some of the sadness and complexities that accompany freedom. Family Album is set in the Victorian era, and it's a family mourning the loss of their patriarch. In the course of that one act the entire family goes from a feeling of real oppression to a greater freedom.
"The second play is 1930s London drawing room, very fun-loving, very sophisticated, perhaps the most typically Cowardian repartee. And then the third play has people of the same class as the second play, only now they're actually visiting or employed in a colonial outpost in a fictitious place, Samolo, where they're acting very inappropriately -- and trying to keep a sense of British manners alive in a very exotic place, where some sort of love intoxication has affected them deeply. The first two plays take place in drawing rooms, and the third is outdoors on a beautiful veranda overlooking the sea. So it's a sort of move from the most repressed to the least oppressed -- or most open -- environment."
Reinking describes her evening like a pastry. "Star Chamber and Red Peppers are very crisp and buoyant and filled with over the-top characters," she says. "And Shadow Play is sort of legato and romantic and sophisticated, and somewhat haunted. And I thought that would be the perfect little cream in the middle."
The two directors have worked independently, not collaborating to achieve any overall atmosphere or style, though both evenings will be performed on a set by Allen Moyer. "I know Michael is thinking of the evenings in tandem," says Greif, "but I think he's also been delighted by the notion of giving Ann and me real autonomy and seeing how they come together, rather than asking us to come together in any specific ways."
Still, both directors had the idea of raiding Coward's song list for extra music. Greif plucked "World Weary" to bridge the first two of his plays, then "Sail Away" to move the scene from 1930s London to Samolo. Reinking had the same idea. "There are two other vaudevillians who sort of book-end Shadow Play, and they sing songs that are equally familiar -- 'Someday I'll Find You' and 'The Dream Is Over.' It's a great way to have a transition." In addition, says Reinking, "my evening has more dancing. But not a lot. If you have Charlotte d'Amboise and Bill Irwin, you've got to utilize their many talents."
For the actors, says Greif, playing in one-acts is difficult. "They have to create three different worlds, and they have to really bang themselves into three different sets of circumstances, which develop for 30 minutes each instead of for 120 minutes or 180 minutes, and I think the starting up again is very challenging," he says. Too challenging, ultimately, for Lawrence and Coward. Although written to provide them with virtuoso turns in drama, comedy and music, Tonight at 8:30 contributed to breakdowns for both performers. Lawrence's occurred in London; Coward's came during the 1937 New York production and closed the show a month early. Luckily, that won't be a danger in Williamstown, where the plays run only through July 2.
Coward seems a strange interlude for a director known for a hit rock musical and another famous for the jazzy syncopations of Chicago and Fosse. Their next projects are a return to form. For the rest of this year Greif has new plays and a musical revue he's going to be working on, and "next year is a production of a play called Dog Eaters, which is adapted from a novel about the Philippines by Jessica Hagedorn. We're going to do it next winter at the Public Theatre."
That's about the time The Visit opens on Broadway. Reinking is choreographing the new Kander and Ebb musical, which will star Angela Lansbury. "We've done preliminary auditions, and we've been working for the last two months on a regular basis," says Reinking. "Fred Ebb and John Kander, Frank Galati, Terrence Mann, Santo Loquasto, and myself-we've been getting together almost regularly for two months, working on the book, working on songs, working on segues, working on concepts." The show will open in Boston in December, begin New York previews in February, and open in March.
Talking about The Visit sparks a memory in Reinking. "The same sort of phenomenon happened to me as when I saw Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence do Red Peppers," she adds. "I also saw The Visit at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, and it just stunned me and stayed with me all these years. It's great to have something that impressed me so much as a young girl to work on as a woman."
-- by Edward Karam