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Cowardly Custard--A Noel Coward Encore 

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COWARDY CUSTARD--A NOEL COWARD ENCORE

Body Politic Theatre

at Ruggles Cabaret

Actor, playwright, poet, tunesmith, director, producer, media star, world-weary bon vivant--Noel Coward did everything with an ease that belied his great gifts. He wrote Private Lives in only four days, and such productivity was not a rare thing for him. When he died, he left behind a huge body of work: hundreds of songs, dozens of plays, two autobiographies, short stories, a novel, a collection of poetry.

But for all that, Coward's work may seem old-fashioned, overrefined, neurotic; his world-weary persona faked and tedious; his words and music forced, even overwritten. The problem is that when you are raised to think of rock music as the spontaneous expression of your soul, show tunes and the like seem as stuffy, calculating, and orchestrated as the most mechanical bit of music from the Baroque era. As a friend of mine put it, "I like Noel Coward, in very, very small doses. But after a while he gets on my nerves. He's just too too."

Let's face it, Noel Coward's image needs reforming. And the Body Politic's stripped-down, simplified production, Cowardy Custard--A Noel Coward Encore, is an excellent place to start. Director Peter Amster and musical director Donald Brearley have conspired to bring us 100 percent pure Noel Coward without a lot of the show-biz hokum--the quaint musical arrangements, the arch acting style thought sophisticated in the 30s--that makes Coward's work hard to appreciate.

Amster and Brearley have replaced the orchestra with a simple piano, reduced the cast from 12 to 4, and radically restructured the show, changing it from a revue created (in 1972) first and foremost for longtime Coward fans to a loose and likable hodgepodge of songs, reminiscences, and play excerpts. The result will please both ardent Coward cultists and those of us who have never had the opportunity to get to know the man's work. Included are all of the usual Coward chestnuts--"I've Been to a Marvelous Party," "London Pride," "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," and "If Love Were All." There are also several of Coward's less often heard works, the most memorable of them his sweetly sentimental ballad "Matelot."

Pauline Brailsford, Donald Brearley, William Brown, and Paula Dewey perform with the sort of verve that gives new life to old standards and makes lesser- known works sound like golden oldies. The ensemble's performance of the bittersweet "If Love Were All" was so sublime it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. And William Brown's rendition of the chauvinistic and very sentimental "London Pride" ("There's a little city flower every spring unfailing / Growing in the crevices by some London railing, / Though it has a Latin name, in town and countryside / We in London call it London Pride") made me yearn for a city I hardly know.

Which is not to imply that the show's ensemble can only do the serious stuff. They perform Coward's comic songs equally well. There's "Mrs. Worthington," for instance, Coward's caustic message to stage mothers everywhere: "On my knees / Mrs. Worthington / Please / Mrs. Worthington / Don't put your daughter on the stage." And "Bronxville Darby and Joan," his equally savage send-up of loveless middle-class marriages: "We're a dear old couple and we hate one another / And we've hated one another for a long, long time." Paula Dewey in particular really shines in the comic numbers. She is absolutely killing as the befuddled Frenchwoman who muddles her way through the Queen's English in Coward's absurdist "Useless Useful Phrases," lifted right from the pages of an English language textbook.

In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that every song in this show is a sheer delight.

The bits from Coward's plays are considerably less successful. The best selections--assorted scenes from Design for Living, Present Laughter, and Shadow Play--smartly display Coward's bitchy Jazz Age wit. But the worst selection of the evening, the excruciatingly long and remarkably unfunny sequence from Red Peppers, a tedious one-act about a couple of second-raters performing in a provincial music hall, only succeeds in ruining the end of what had been a marvelous first act. It was only during this scene that I noticed how cramped and uncomfortable the seating is at Ruggles Cabaret--it made Second City seem positively spacious.

The Red Peppers lapse, however, is in sharp contrast to the rest of this entertaining show. Anyone who skips Cowardy Custard will have missed an all-too-rare chance to see a master's work masterfully performed.

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