November 23, 2004

Unearthed Noel Coward play engages emotions

Throw away the brandy glasses and the tuxedos—this is not that type of Noël Coward play. With This Happy Breed, the Timeline Theatre Company has made a bold choice in producing a rare play by a rarely produced playwright. It is even more daring that they chose a play that does not fit Coward's reputation. And while Timeline has, for the most part, put on an excellent production, it is easy to tell why this play is almost never produced. Despite some fundamental flaws in the play itself, it is definitely still worth seeing due to its emotional power, even if it isn't the most satisfying night of theater.

This Happy Breed takes place in the Gibbons' middle-class British home in the twenty-year interwar period from 1919-1939. As the years pass, signified with incredibly well crafted video segments, the family undergoes significant change and turmoil of its own. The father, Frank, a World War I veteran, opens the play with hammering off-stage, as his wife Ethel moves furniture while her mother-in-law and sister-in-law bicker mundanely, which becomes the main source of comic relief throughout the play. What stands out about this work, however, is that Coward's usual style of witty dialogue and a light, delightful little night of theater is nowhere to be found: The play is filled with anger, disillusionment, and even tragedy. Politics shape this play almost as much as the development of the main characters.

While this shift is unexpected from Coward, it quickly becomes apparent that he has overstepped his capabilities as a playwright. Ironically, dialogue is one of the weaker elements of the play, as almost immediately it becomes painfully obvious that Coward is much more comfortable writing quotable phrases than tense, dramatic dialogue. Although the dialogue does get better by the second act, the plot structure breaks down. Ethel's unwillingness to forgive her daughter, Queenie, and indeed, her total refusal to hear her name, is out of character, and needlessly repeated long after we already know the state of affairs. On the other hand, what should be a huge plot twist affecting all the characters' lives—the death of one of the Gibbons children—is never mentioned after it happens. It's not because of denial either. The rest of the play proceeds as if the son had never existed.

Despite such egregious errors, the point of the play is obviously to strike an emotional chord rather than to have a succinct plot. And for the most part, that aspect of the play is successful. There are moments that are extremely touching, and one is moved by most of the play. Incidentally, a play so dense with drama and content ends up following the pattern of other Coward plays: It's emotionally, but not intellectually, stirring. While this goal is flawed in and of itself, some of the aforementioned plot holes and awkward dialogue prevent even the emotional aspect of This Happy Breed from reaching its full potential.

This is not to say, however, that the Timeline Theatre Company has not done an excellent job of producing the play. The video transitions, as stated, were carefully considered, and the set design took the risky approach of being performed in-the-round, and the risk paid off. Furthermore, the costume and makeup design is absolutely stunning, capturing the aging of characters over twenty years in thirty-second scene transitions. Overall, the acting is spectacular, but there are a few exceptions, the most notable being Dana Black as Queenie. In an effort to be hostile, Black has forgotten that she needs to be an actor too. Terry Hamilton is brilliant as Frank, stealing the show whenever he is on stage.

While the play is imperfect, the production still deserves an audience. Ultimately, the history, emotional power, and phenomenal production outweigh the problems with the play itself, however major they may be. The Timeline Theatre Company is clearly a group to watch.