Houston’s Main Street Theater is one of my favorite acting companies, mainly because it seems they always seem to pick plays that I would like to do. So there is an element of narcissism in my fandom.
But really, it’s because they do such fabulous work. Picking great plays is one thing, consistently producing quality work is quite another.
At the moment they are performing Nöel Coward’s “Peace in Our Time.” This is the second Coward play in a row for the company, following this summer’s “Fallen Angels,” but the two plays could not be more different.
“Fallen Angels” was Coward at his frothy, comedic best — a jolly good romp (performed with impeccable timing and style). However, he is more than just a purveyor of confections (although his best plays are full of razor sharp dialogue, with and observational satire).
Having made his reputation with his classic comedies of manners — “Private Lives,” Hay Fever” and “Blithe Spirit” (which remains among my favorite directing experiences), Coward worked closely with the British government in WWII, producing films aimed at lifting morale for Britons who were dealing with the blitz and rationing. The best example is “In Which We Serve,” which Coward wrote, starred in and directed.
“Peace in Our Time” is Coward at his absolute best and reveals the entire range of his talents. Written in 1947, in an England struggling with post-WWII austerity, the play suggests a scenario where England lost the Battle of Britain and the German army became an occupying force.
The entire play takes place in The Shy Gazelle pub in London, between November 1940 and May 1945. The pub’s regulars cover the gamut of British society, from the working class Blakes to the upper-class Mr. Bourne, all coming together in a place that is run by Fred and Nora Shattock — a couple who, as it is carefully pointed out by Nazi official Albrecht Richter, are firmly middle class.
Coward gives us Britain in microcosm. The English neighborhood pub is truly a gathering place for everybody. The “public” part (which we glimpse only briefly) was where one went to play darts or billiard, and was slightly rowdy. The saloon (or the snug) was quieter, often where the regulars gathered. It is these people that we follow as they deal with the occupation.
Not only are the characters of different class and age, they also represent the different ways people choose to deal with their plight. Anyone watching who does not find a sneer of disgust crossing their face while watching the weasley Chorley Bannister must be missing something.
Coward has a fantastic ability to capture the essence of what being British is — or, at least, what the British think of themselves as being. The play has elements of the “stiff upper lip,” as well as the “Dunkirk spirit.” But more importantly, it speaks the potential for human beings to come together. It argues that together, regardless of the outcome, there is hope.
This one, seemingly insignificant pub, holds the key to the future of the people who frequent it.
Under the superb, as usual, direction of Rebecca Greene Udden, the 24-person ensemble transports the audience to 1940s England. To single out any individual actor would be to undermine the message of the play. They all perform their roles splendidly. Coward, it seems, would argue that everyone has a part to play, and those parts — together — offer a chance for success.
“Peace in Our Time” runs through Oct. 19.
For more, visit http://mainstreettheater.com.