First Nighter: Noel Coward's Song at Twilight in Top-Drawer Revival

When you look over the plays Noel Coward trumpeted during his fabulous career, few give the impression of being in any direct way autobiographical.

Though his first smash was The Vortex in 1924, about a drug-addicted young man and his mother, the troubled lad couldn't have been based on the playwright's intensely industrious self. Thumbing through comedies like Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living and Blithe Spirit, a Coward fan finds it difficult to pinpoint any reference to the author's history.

Yes, in the case of Private Lives, his relationship with Gertrude Lawrence, for whom he wrote the high-toned, flat-out comic escapade over a productive weekend, was surely a factor in its impudent impetus. And Design for Living, which he conjured for the married Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt and himself, is his spin o the theatrical threesome's relationship--by way of the teasing, conventions-nose-thumbing Gilda, Otto and Leo.

Present Laughter, in which a famous actor is besieged by friends and strangers alike, was probably triggered by Coward's balking at the underside of his celebrity. It undoubtedly is his lashing-out humorously at the ceaseless unsolicited attentions he received.

And then there's his 1965 play, A Song at Twilight, now at the Westport Country Playhouse after a Hartford Stage run. However you look at it, this is his most serious work since the sensational Vortex -- and, really, just plainly his most serious and likely autobiographical play.

But hold that thought for after the synopsis: Sir Hugo Latymer (Brian Murray), now married for 20 years to onetime secretary Hilde (Mia Dillon), is nervous at the impending arrival of much earlier romantic partner, Carlotta (Gordana Rashovich). The thrust of the drawing-room drama, set in a fancy Swiss hotel suite (Alexander Dodge's smart set, featuring the sculpture of a reclining nude woman) is what transpires when Carlotta informs Sir Hugo she's in possession of letters he sent to the only true love of his life -- a man from his long-ago youth.

While the characters in various two or three combinations eat caviar, drink pink Champagne and exchange searing but often laugh-out-loud zingers on a par with the best Coward ever concocted, what's really at issue is the difficulty and ultimately pointless energy expended by a person's keeping secrets that often have already been guessed by others.

In other words, A Song at Twilight (originally one of three plays offered over two evenings), could be considered Coward's wisest -- not that others aren't immersed in the wisdom of the master's innumerable and invaluable observations of human foibles. Still, the piece, which most likely could only be imagined by someone past middle age, has much profound to say about life's wasted years.

Not incidentally, the play is ostensibly Coward's oblique reminiscence of William Somerset Maugham. There's no missing the references. In an early speech about the perils of movie making and adaptations, Sir Hugo scoffs that several of his short stories were ruined in that process. (Trio, Quartet and Encore are the titles of Maugham's movie anthologies.)

To make certain the Maugham literati get the point, Sir Hugo, in talking about a memoir he's published, notes that it's a "summing up" of his colorful days. One of Maugham's books is The Summing Up. (By the way, I've seen at least one Song at Twilight production where a portrait of Sir Hugo, very much like one of the Maugham portraits Graham Sutherland painted, decorated the surroundings.)

Nevertheless, Coward's planting these clues also comes across as a deliberate attempt to insure against anyone's thinking he's writing about himself--and thereby all but establishing that as exactly what he's doing.

Granted, whether it is or isn't self-referential, Coward -- whose homosexuality was not a well-kept secret, although never publicly acknowledged at a time when it would have implicated him in a crime -- was surely having somber thoughts and perhaps even recriminations about men in his situation. He's transformed those recollections into an important play.

Its importance is beautifully maximized by director Mark Lamos, his costumer Fabio Toblini (whose eye for the expensive outfits of the day is astute) and his cast.

For decades now, Murray has been an actor on whom directors, playwrights (like Edward Albee) and audiences rely for memorable performances. His portrayal of the aging Sir Hugo, who sometimes uses a cane and sometimes forgoes it, is indisputably another outstanding turn. His vocal pyrotechnics alone are worth anyone's time. He also bears close watching when others are speaking about him in ways that demolish the defenses he's spent a lifetime constructing.

Rashovich's Carlotta is a woman who knows how deeply she's wounding her former lover but, by her looks, also staunchly believes that everything she's saying must be said. As the often verbally derided Hilde, Dillon seems to have the least of the three focal roles. Coward hands her a speech leading up to the denouement, however, that any actor would want to grasp, and she makes the absolute most of it.

As Felix, a waiter tending to the Latymers and guest, Nicholas Carriere couldn't be more suave. He definitely knows how to wrap a Champagne bottle before displaying it for a consumer's assessment.

In his approach to A Song at Twilight, Lamos takes one huge liberty. Twice, when Sir Hugo is abruptly forced to recall his homosexual past, an upstage wall (designed to look like a view of the mountains) fades to reveal two young men (Brian Kemp, Joseph Merlo) behind it. They're silently making love. Do the brief tableaux add anything? Probably not, not when Coward's play as it is is so thoroughly evocative. Coward penned many marvelous songs in his day. This is absolutely among them.