Form, Substance, and Social Truth

Relative Values by Noel Coward. At Circle Bar B, Friday, September 22.

Reviewed by Bojana Hill

Relative Values exposes a class-conscious society in which appearances and formalities still reign, but are fast slipping away. Even the butler laments the loss, saying, “comedy of manners disappears quickly when the manners disappear.” Of course, Crestwell is no ordinary butler; he quotes Milton and alludes to Somerset Maugham. His dry wit, sarcastic humor, and erudite knowledge exceed his superiors. Nevertheless, Crestwell will always remain a butler. Social equality is a utopian idea as far as he is concerned.

The ordinary, orderly family life of the manor is usurped when Nigel, Earl of Marshwood, announces his impending nuptials to Miranda Frayle, a flamboyant Hollywood actress and thus his “social inferior.” Resolved to stifle prejudice against her future daughter-in-law, the Countess of Marshwood presents a stiff upper lip. In the meantime, her devoted personal maid, Moxie, apparently distraught over the wedding news, suddenly decides to quit her job of 20 years. The discovery of her mysterious behavior is a shock to all, but the resourceful Crestwell devises a plan to save appearances. The ensuing scene is a pure delight: the family members are seated in an elegant room sipping martinis in anticipation of a dinner bell. Moxie’s transformation causes a couple of guests to drop their jaws. Still, the conversation continues, filled with humorous innuendos and ironic quips.

When the focus shifts to Miranda, a voluptuous platinum-blonde Hollywood actress (Jamie Hixon), the social abyss between her and Nigel appears unbridgeable. With a typically patronizing attitude toward a less sophisticated American actress, the English family reveals their pride and prejudice. Not far removed from the social milieu of Jane Austen, the play is both a satire and a playful comedy. The Countess of Marshwood may snub Miranda, but she is eager for some publicity in the local newspaper on account of Miranda’s celebrity. Opportunistic and crafty in her way, she manipulates these means to her desired end.

Leslie Ann Story is great in the demanding role of the Countess. David Couch makes his first acting appearance in nine years as butler Crestwell. He charms the audience with his never-failing straight face as he delivers witticisms one after another. Susie Couch shows her versatility in the role of Moxie — emotionally fragile, but honest, lovable, and ultimately vindicated. The ending scene, with Crestwell and Moxie seated on a sofa in an affectionate embrace, suggests the triumph of truth. Relative Values invites us to laugh hard at other people’s follies — and our own, too.

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