In the 1920s, when Broadway and the West End were at the height of their cultural influence and prestige, one of the main reasons people went to the theater was for something that many still crave but that today we are perhaps less conscious of pursuing. I’m talking about capital “S” Sophistication, that devil-may-care, insouciant approach to life that rests oh so lightly on the belief that no problem is so big or serious that it can’t be dealt with by a witty comeback and a stiff cocktail. The twin titans of sophistication were Cole Porter and Noël Coward, and when Ensemble Theatre Company opens Coward’s Fallen Angels this week at the New Vic, Santa Barbara audiences will get a chance to listen in on the conversations of a group of young marrieds circa 1925 who aren’t afraid — or at least don’t think they are afraid — to be sophisticated about lust and marriage.
Jane (Julie Granata) and Julia (Paige Lindsey White) are waiting for the same Frenchman, Maurice (J. Paul Boehmer), with whom they have both had affairs, although at different times. Complications ensue, some emanating from the fact that Jane and Julie are best friends since childhood and current neighbors, and others from the fact that both women are now married. Following the time-honored formula of the sophisticated stage, Coward takes this situation, adds plenty of alcohol, and sets off the comedic fireworks.
Talking with Granata and director Andrew Barnicle about Fallen Angels last week, I could feel the warmth of their enthusiasm for Coward’s endlessly relevant, effortlessly funny material. Facing the double standard by which the same behavior registers as a negative for a woman (as in she’s a slut) and positive for a man (he’s a stud), Jane and Julia find that sharing a sophisticated take on how the world goes doesn’t necessarily bring them closer together. “Coward is questioning the assumption that women don’t have the same conversations about sex that men do,” said Barnicle, adding that “then it was a scandal, but today it’s just funny as hell.”
Fallen Angels previews Thursday-Friday, June 9-10, and runs June 11-26. For tickets and information. Call (805) 965-5400 or visit ensembletheatre.com.