- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2003

Noel Coward had a great many loves in his life, but his most enduring affair of the mind and heart was with the actress Gertrude Lawrence, whom he met when they were both child players touring the English provinces.

He thought the 14-year-old Gertie was vivacious and had a quicksilver talent; she found him enormously affected and condescending. A best-friendship was immediately struck, and the rest is show business legend.

In Gertie, Mr. Coward found a sparkling, lifelong muse. He wrote many of his wittiest plays (“Private Lives,” “Tonight at 8:30,” “Blithe Spirit,” “Bitter Sweet”) so they could perform them together.

In Noel, Gertie found a supportive friend for life (his telegrams to her alone were a priceless legacy) and someone who understood her unique and restless talent. Together, they were an impeccable team, a writer and an actress who actually savored each other’s company on and off stage.

The 40-year relationship between the two stars is entertainingly charted in Sheridan Morley’s “Noel and Gertie,” which is receiving a charming, gossamer-light production at MetroStage under the expert direction of Nancy Robillard.

Mr. Morley strives for nuanced subtext in trying to explain the deep bond between a homosexual man and a heterosexual woman, but he need not have tried so hard. It is the affection and admiration that Noel (Carl Randolph) and Gertie (Tracy McMullan) had for each other that shines through, not the whys or hows or the psychological permutations of such a pairing.

And really, does Mr. Morley think a theatrical audience would never have heard of such a thing?

The production is much better off when it sticks to presenting Mr. Coward’s delectable ditties and scenes from his plays. Snippets of “Private Lives” provide a loose structure for the story of their friendship, interspersed with song-and-dance numbers.

Miss McMullan has one of those clear, Baccarat voices well-suited to Mr. Coward’s songs, which run from straight ballads to tunes that bear traces of the music hall. While the trill in her voice lends itself admirably to the more substantial melodies “I Travel Alone,” “Sail Away” and “If Love for All,” it’s a pleasure to see her kick it up a bit in the more madcap and comic compositions, “Has Anybody Seen Our Ship” and “Men About Town.”

Mr. Randolph is suave and assured as Noel, but his singing voice failed him from time to time, and he fluffed lines. His most confident and glib moments come in the novelty song “Mrs. Worthington,” where he becomes more wittily unkind with each verse imploring this stage mother not to launch her daughter into show business.

The ocean liner set from MetroStage’s previous production, “Rough Crossing,” has been nicely adapted to look like an art deco boite, complete with the requisite martini shakers. In fact, “Noel and Gertie” is like an evening in a posh cocktail lounge where everything is bright, smart and brilliantly superficial.

***

WHAT: “Noel and Gertie” by Sheridan Morley

WHERE: MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Sundays. Through Dec. 14

TICKETS: $32 to $38

PHONE: 703/548-9044


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