The old adage — “never tell your best friend anything you wouldn’t want your worst enemy to know” — is the armature of Noel Coward’s “A Song At Twilight,” one of the last plays he wrote (1966) before his death in 1973.
What Sir Hugo Latymer (Bruce Davison), a writer of some unspecified but wide renown, doesn’t want anyone to know is that the person he loved most during his long life is not his former secretary and wife of 20 years, Hilde Latymer (Roxanne Hart), nor his pre-Hilde mistress of years ago, Carlotta Gray (Sharon Lawrence) — but another man, Perry Sheldon (unseen).
Sir Hugo fears that disclosure of his homosexuality will seriously damage his carefully crafted reputation as well as putting him at risk of trouble with the law, but that is precisely what Carlotta presents when she appears at the Latymers’ luxurious Swiss hotel suite and tells him of her plan to write her memoirs.
She seeks his permission to include material not only from his letters to her during their two-year-long dalliance but, more alarmingly, from his revealing letters to Perry. Turns out she has those letters, having obtained them from Perry himself before he died.
Enraged by her impending betrayal of his private life, Hugo’s fury is equal parts the recent Chilean magnitude 8.2 earthquake and the Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption — so convincingly so that I found myself scanning the Playhouse’s exits just in case, you know, Mr. Davison goes about carrying concealed.
Hugo and Carlotta’s thrusts and parries about their long-ago relationship (he used her as a “beard” to hide his passion for Perry), her ridicule of his pretenses (“you were always as queer as a coot”), his disdain for her intellect and, of course, his letters to Perry, consume most of the play’s 90 minutes. There’s a bitter, acerbic tone to “Twilight,” one not normally found in his plays, but be assured Coward didn’t pass up opportunities to break the tension for an occasional, Noëlian zinger.
Why was Coward so hyper about being outed? While the play doesn’t specify its decade, it’s worth recalling that it wasn’t that long ago when The Closet was as jammed with writers, artists, musicians and celebrities as Black Friday shoppers in Macy’s. It has also been suggested he was perturbed when his friend and fellow gay author, W. Somerset Maugham, was confronted with the real-life dilemma of outing.
Davison, as mentioned above, is a marvelous Sir Hugo — ferocious one moment, forlorn the next. Lawrence’s Carlotta, beautiful and glamorous, is as cool and canny as a poker player holding four aces. Hart’s Hilde bookends the play, with a strong presence at the beginning, a long absence in the middle but a strong, very strong, closing.
There’s a fourth player, Zach Bandler, as the room service waiter, Felix, who pops in and out of the set like a Jack in the Box but isn’t given much to do except pop open Champagne bottles. Director Manke sets a brisk treadmill pace for these four performers and they’re equal to the task.
The set, by Tom Buderwitz, is so upscale that I thought at first it was the Latymers’ mansion. It wasn’t until Felix, he of the room service role, entered quickly and exited just as quickly for the fourth or fifth time that I caught on: it’s a five-star hotel. David Kay Mickelsen dressed the players as niftily as their personalities required.
Well, contrary to the adage I led with in this review, let me tell friends and foe alike that “A Song at Twilight” is very much worth seeing.