Laughing Manners

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Noel Coward-s name is almost synonymous with the phrase -comedy of manners.- In the 1930-s, when Coward-s gems like Private Lives, Design for Living, and Present Laughter were written, there was still such a thing as manners-and Coward was a master of knowing just how desperately good mannered people wanted to see exhibitions of people behaving badly.

Coward described this phenomenon-and his own style-best when he told the following anecdote: -Private Lives was described variously as -tenuous, thin, brittle, gossamer, iridescent and delightfully daring,- all of which connoted to the public mind cocktails, evening dress, repartee and irreverent allusions to copulation, thereby causing a gratifying number of respectable people to queue up at the box office.- Today, manners aren-t what they used to be. Everything that Coward could only allude to in his plays, now can be spoken of openly on stage-or even shown. Because of this, the comedy of manners is more or less dead.

But morals aren-t the only thing that have changed since Coward-s heyday in the -30-s-so have acting styles; and this, perhaps even more than modern etiquette (or lack there of) has made it so difficult to revive Coward-s work.

Method acting and realism, which has dominated the theater since the 40-s is at odds with the splendid artifice that-s at the heart of Coward-s work. Sir Noel once famously told an actor: -if you must have motivation, think of your pay packet on Friday."

Coward-s Blithe Spirit-currently being staged by The Cowardice Theater Company-is perhaps the most artificial of all his plays as it involves a visit from the most difficult type of ex-wife: one who comes back from beyond the grave.

With its cucumber sandwiches and Marmite, this production directed by Gwen Hiller feels authentic; and indeed the actors look-and sometimes even sound-like Brits. But all this realism doesn-t do much to serve the play. The actors involved in the romantic triangle all seem to be looking inward, trying to create their characters rather than focusing on the comic lines and letting Coward-s expert writing do the character building for them.

The result of this is that much of Coward-s tart dialogue lands with a thud and no real chemistry emerges in the ensemble. Only Mary Jo Catlett-who seems to have not aged a day since she played Pearl in the sit-com Diff-rent Strokes-breathes real comic life into her role of the batty medium, Madame Arcati. Catlett-s plummy midwest accent isn-t remotely British, but rather than wasting energy trying to hide it, she focuses instead on the fortuneteller-s grandiose words and silly affectations. She doesn-t quite achieve comic magic, but she does manage to entertain.

First-time playwright Richard Kramer-s Theater District isn-t quite the comic souffl- that Blithe Spirit is-though it does contain some delightful witticisms-but the production currently running here in Los Angeles does have a cast that-s perfectly in tune with the style of the piece. Couched somewhere between comedy and drama, Theater District is a short, tender work that feels like something E.M. Forster might have written had he lived in Clintonian Manhattan instead of Edwardian London. The main draw of this staging by Matt Shackman is the young actor Josh Breslow, who delivers a uniquely realistic portrayal of adolescent angst.

Kramer-s play is a worthy vehicle for this cast, even though it feels a bit overwritten at times. Every anecdote has the polish of literary fiction, and every line contains a hint of sarcastic wit. We should look forward to Kramer-s second play, but also hope that he perhaps listen to Coward who advised: -Wit ought to be a glorious treat, like caviar. Never spread it about like marmalade.-

Theater District continues at the Black Dahlia Theatre until August 1. Blithe Spirit runs through July 24 at the Globe Playhouse in West Hollywood.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW