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FALLEN ANGELS

Chimera Theatre Ensemble

at Piper Hall

When Noel Coward's Fallen Angels premiered in 1925, more than a few reviews called it amoral, disgusting, vulgar, and an insult to British womanhood. Coward as usual was vastly amused. He conceded Angels was "extremely slight" and hobbled with a weak final act. Still, he said, it was "gay and lighthearted," and he'd graced it with two excellent parts for the likes of Tallulah Bankhead and Edna Best. Tongue securely in cheek, he said his only fear was that "as the second act portrays two ladies of the bourgeoisie drinking too much champagne while waiting for their former lover, that it is liable to be popped on in Moscow at any moment as a striking example of the decadence of Western democracy."

Now safely anesthetized as a period piece, Fallen Angels is unlikely to insult any womanhood, British or otherwise. But, as Pegasus Players proved in their 1984 revival, it still offers bravura parts for actress-angels who can fall to their occasion. The title characters Julia and Jane are two unhappily married wives yoked to fuddy-duddy golf duffers. Not long after the honeymoons, the magic vanished from their marriages ("an arid waste of discontent," Julia puts it). Neither wife has enough love left to even resent the bloom that's left the rose. But, unknown to the hubbies (along with most of life's mysteries), the women have a past--and his unexpected arrival in England threatens their far too uneventful present. It seems that seven years before, each had a separate affair in Italy with a dapper Frenchman named Maurice Duclos. Now--mon Dieu!--Maurice is back, and in each woman "the beastly part in us that's ready to spring" is suddenly on the prowl. Julia and Jane have got, quite literally, the seven-year itch.

The imminent return of this figure of romance does more than just send the ladies' libidos into overdrive. Feverishly, Julia and Jane start rationalizing the multiple infidelities they've already committed in their minds. You'd think mutual deception would bind them, but while waiting for Maurice they get decorously soused (so potted, in fact, that when they see their heads reflected in the spoons they go into conniptions). Pent-up jealousies erupt and sisterly solidarity surrenders to catty bitching. Ridiculously enough, the ladies are fighting over a man neither has seen in donkey's years.

When the French skeleton in their closet finally shows up (90 minutes into the action, regrettably a bit too late for us to care passionately about the outcome), the husbands, each alerted by the other's wife, confront him. But their righteous indignation is no match for quick-thinking Maurice, who teaches them not to take their wives for granted (though it's doubtful if their tiny minds will retain the lesson long).

At any rate, Coward is right about this third act: the revelations in the first two acts of double standards, marital hypocrisy, and the sexual seething of two respectable wives--all an elaborate setup for Maurice's delayed appearance--are much more ingenious and provocative than the playwright's halfhearted resolution. When, after leading us into adulteryland, Coward tries to play it safe, the playwright lives down to his name.

What's Coward-clever--and the best thing about Curt Columbus's staging of this Chimera Theatre Ensemble production--is the pathetic way these women cling to the very respectability they're aching to throw off. These are no Anna Kareninas giving up all for the man they hope will love them; they just want someone exotic to play with them in their dollhouse. (Maybe this does insult British womanhood, but not as 1925 imagined.) Yet, dithering ninnies though they seem, their stratagems betray a lot of heartsick desperation, particularly when each realizes the other could nab Maurice.

As Julia, Deirdre Waters crisply displays the mailed fist under the velvet glove; best of all, no matter how silly the moment, Waters plays it for all it's worth. Barbara Griffin's fidgeting and rather transparent Jane strays a bit too far from her character's reality, but in time Griffin should settle into a more subtle self-deception.

Though, like most here, too young for their roles, Ted Bales and Joshua Witt are earnestly thickheaded as the smug-faced husbands. John Chandon plays the strangely moralizing Frenchman with efficient smoothness. They all could pick up the pace and lose little.

Lastly, Randi Silberman threatens to steal the show as the exasperatingly bubbly maid Saunders (the wives gave her that dour name but she calls herself Jasmin). Like Wodehouse's Jeeves, Saunders has done everything (and what she hasn't done she knows); hilariously, her invaluable assistance is enough to drive Jane and Julia bonkers. Silberman also doubles as the veddy English "chanteuse" who before the show and between the acts sweetly and winningly sings five classic Coward numbers: "You Were There," "Why Do the Wrong People Travel and the Right People Stay at Home?" "Mad About the Boy," "A Room With a View," and Coward's valedictory, "If Love Were All." These alone are worth the visit.

The credit for the set goes to architect Cassie Wheeler, who built it in 1909. Fallen Angels, you see, takes place in the Fireplace Room of Piper Hall, a sprawling lakeside mansion that Mundelein College acquired in 1934. With its grand staircase and huge Tiffany window, carved plaster ceiling with Gothic ornamental ribbing and hand-carved woodwork, the room makes a sumptuous setting; the Chimera folks enhance the elegance by serving refreshments as you enter. Coward and his characters would feel quite at home; there's enough ambience here to last a good six months. The uncredited costumes imply the period is the 40s, but the furniture suggests a decade later. Ordinarily this would be pure nitpick, but Coward's works are very much creatures of their time and they get stronger as they get more specific.

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