When angels fall, do they then become devils? This is the big question at the dark heart of Noël Coward’s deceptively bright comedy Fallen Angels, which originally opened in London in 1925 and is getting a terrific production this month by Ensemble Theatre Company. Best friends Julia Sterroll (Paige Lindsey White) and Jane Banbury (Julie Granata) certainly behave devilishly enough, at least at times, to justify that conclusion. These proud rebels strain against the confines of Julia’s posh London flat like a pair of restless tigers. Their marriages have become twin cages of bourgeois respectability without a scrap of bloody excitement to be seen anywhere. Perhaps that’s why they are both so receptive to a pair of mysterious booty calls from the same ex-lover, Maurice Duclos (J. Paul Boehmer). In another time or place, there might be more of a fuss made over the way that Maurice just happens to contact both women at the same time. Here it’s merely the trigger for playwright Coward’s vivid expression of all the pent-up sexual tension a pair of sophisticated young wives can muster.
Director Andrew Barnicle has elicited six sterling performances from this wonderful cast. Matthew Floyd Miller delivers some devastating comic reversals as Willy Banbury, husband to Jane, and Joseph Fuqua is consistently hilarious as the absurd Fred Sterroll. Fuqua gives the kind of performance that gets enormous laughs from something as simple as crossing his legs at the exact right moment. As the singing, piano-playing, and worldly wise servant Saunders, Mary-Pat Green very nearly steals the show on several occasions with her extraordinary comic turns.
At its core, however, the play’s primary subject is the volatile relationship between Jane and Julia. How can these two women, close friends since childhood, keep shared secrets intact when they are simultaneously engaged in a fierce battle for the attention of the same man? A mutual state of frenzied anticipation toward the pending arrival of Maurice puts Jane and Julia into a spiral of attraction and repulsion for one another. Whether it’s in the thirsty buildup to their evening binge or during the champagne- and martini-fueled blowout that precipitates Jane’s abrupt departure, these two gifted actresses deliver the play’s knife-sharp putdowns and comebacks with precision and gusto. Coward knew a thing or two about the impact of alcohol on an evening, and the subtlety of his handling of this comic commonplace is one of the show’s unexpected pleasures.
Farce typically deploys mistaken identities and the inadvertent discovery of characters in compromising positions as directional signs pointing toward the next stage in the plot. Fallen Angels has plenty of both, but the emphasis is less on the turnabouts and more on the unrelenting tension that exists among these misbegotten marrieds. Boehmer shows great skill in pulling off the role of Maurice, a part that clearly requires tremendous confidence to deliver successfully. Although the clichéd idea that the French have all the sexual fun is an ancient one, as Maurice, Boehmer manages to make it plausible. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to the individual. We can’t all be angels, but does that make us devils?