“How much do you want?” literary giant Hugo Latymer bluntly asks actress Carlotta Gray in Noël Coward’s “A Song at Twilight,” which is currently playing at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison. But this is no simple blackmail.
Carlotta (played by Laila Robins) is a long-ago ex-lover of Hugo (Edmond Genest), and she has shown up, out of the blue, saying she wants to publish his old love letters in her memoirs. After Latymer refuses to grant permission, she pulls out her ammunition: items in her possession that would cause Latymer great embarrassment if they were given to a certain professor who wants to write about them. (I won’t say what they are here in order not to ruin the surprise, but read below, under “Spoiler Alert,” if you want to know more).
Carlotta makes her veiled threat at the end of the first act of this two-act play, and it’s here that the play really gets interesting. The first act is a bit slow-moving, with the crusty Hugo not quite sure what to make of Carlotta’s reappearance of his life, and Carlotta reluctant to put all of her cards on the table. But in the second act, Hugo is forced to come to terms with the reality of his life — not the fiction he has created, in his own memoirs — and the play builds to a memorably emotional finish.
Some of Coward’s plays are much frothier. But in this late-career work — first produced in 1966, with Coward, then 65, playing Hugo — the characters have no time, or patience, for frivolity, even though may be sipping pink champagne in a luxurious Swiss hotel suite. Carlotta — dismissed by Hugo in one of his books as a “mediocre actress” — has, it turns out, complicated motives for what she is doing. And Hugo is a wounded animal trapped in a gilded cage of his own making. Hugo’s wife Hilde (Alison Weller) doesn’t add much to the first act but is vitally important to the second, entering the argument with a wise, humane perspective, and helping to bring about a sort of truce.
Paul Mullins, now in his 25th season with the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, directs his old pros — Robins, Genest and Weller all have impressive credits, in New Jersey and beyond — with a sure hand, and set designer Brittany Vasta creates an appropriate atmosphere of tasteful elegance.
Costume designer Nikki Delhomme comes up with the perfect outfit for everyone: A striking yellow dress for Carlotta, who has a flair for the dramatic; an aristocratic smoking jacket for Hugo; and a sensible, plain business suit for Hilde, who functions as Hugo’s business partner and translates his books into German. Ben Houghton rounds out the cast as the suave young tuxedo-clad waiter Felix, who plays the suite’s grand piano when he’s not fetching champagne.
The play runs through May 29; visit shakespearenj.org.
I won’t write about the final scene here, but did want to mention, since it’s one of the most notable things about the play, that Carlotta tells Hugo, at the end of the first act, that she has love letters of his to a man, and believes that that man was the only person Hugo ever loved. If the letters were to go public, Hugo would, in effect, be “outed,” and the accuracy of his memoirs, which address only his affairs with women, would be called into question.
The characters don’t dance around the subject, but discuss it quite bluntly. At one point, Carlotta tells Hugo he’s “as queer as a coot.”
This seems to me a pretty brave thing for a playwright to be doing in the pre-Stonewall ’60s; it didn’t become common for mainstream media to address the subject of outing celebrities until a few decades later. So in this way, perhaps, “A Song at Twilight” was ahead of its time.