Noel Coward would become one of Great Britain’s wittiest, most successful high-style playwrights, known for such enduring comedies of manners as Private Lives, Present Laughter and Design for Living. In 1925, though, at the age of 25, he wrote the less well-known, lesser Easy Virtue, a dark-toned tale of an American divorcee who marries into a well-heeled British family, most of whom take an immediate dislike to her.
Although its theme – the uneasy tension between bohemians and the more conventional gentry – will be repeated throughout Coward’s career, he was not yet able to express it concisely. Or perhaps the problem nowadays is the attention span of contemporary audiences, who are not used to the three-act format of works from nearly a century ago.
While Easy Virtue seems in need of considerable editing, it makes for a worthy challenge for the recent and imminent graduates of Florida Atlantic University’s theater department who are cast in this summer’s Festival Rep. True, they are unlikely to encounter such a minor slice of Coward outside of academia, but the need to breathe life into inert, artificial stage pieces like this play is bound to crop up often.
Some of these young performers do rise to the task of involving us in Easy Virtue, most notably willowy Jessica Eaton as Larita, who embodies capably this modern woman with a shady past. She disrupts the placid country manor of the idle rich Whittakers, as their prodigal son John (Zak Westfall) arrives with his new wife of six months and runs into staunch disapproval from Mrs. Whittaker (Equity guest artist Kim Ostrenko) and her fervently religious daughter Marion (Amanda Corbett).
Foreshadowing Private Lives, which Coward would write five years later, the relationship between Larita and John soon frays. She becomes bored with country life and he rekindles a flirtation with a former fiancé, Sarah (Erin Williams). Although Coward originally gave the play a downbeat, dramatic conclusion, at FAU director Jean Louis Baldet tacks on a more comic ending similar to the one added in a 2008 film adaptation.
In addition to the compelling Eaton, Williams as her compatriot Sarah is aptly poised and charismatic. Both demonstrate a stage presence and verbal agility that suggest promising careers ahead. All too many of the rest of the cast seem defeated by the demands of their British accents and the arch poses of Coward’s upper crust. The other Equity ringer, Wayne LeGette, is well cast as Col. Whittaker, even if he spends most of the evening on the sidelines looking bemused.
April Soroko provides a visually striking drawing room set, well appointed with rich details, plenty of playing space and a nice staircase fit for dramatic entrances. Dawn Shamburger’s costumes are period perfect and full of character, notably Larita’s first-act trousers, a diaphanous lavender outfit for Act Two and finally an intentionally over-the-top bejeweled white gown for the final act soiree.
Easy Virtue will never be mistaken for top-drawer Coward, or at least the FAU Festival Rep cast cannot elevate the material into seeming so. Still, there are enough signs of the emerging playwright to make the production worthwhile for curious, and forgiving, theatergoers.
EASY VIRTUE, Florida Atlantic University Studio One Theatre, 777 Glades Rd., Boca Raton. Through Saturday, June 23. $25. Call 561-297-6124 or visit www.fauevents.com.