Candid 'Song at Twilight,' rowdy but repressed 'Reunion'

Sharon Lawrence and Bruce Davison in "A Song at Twilight," photo by Michael Lamont.

They look as different as day and night - "A Song at Twilight" at Pasadena Playhouse and "Reunion" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. The former is set in a posh Swiss hotel suite, literally during the day as well as back in the day (the '60s). The latter is set in a cheap room in a contemporary Massachusetts motel, long after dark.

Yet both of them (spoiler alerts?) are about the psychological costs of men's repression of homosexual activity from their pasts.

In "A Song at Twilight," Noel Coward wrote about a character much like himself - a clever and somewhat closeted man of the theater. Then, in the premiere in 1966, he took the then-audacious step of playing the character, whose long-ago devotion to a now-dead male lover is revealed as part of the first-act climax.

The play's other two characters are women - the Coward character's understanding wife, and another woman with whom he once had a rather chaste affair. This former beard has obtained possession of his love letters to the recently deceased male lover.

Gregory S. Moss' "Reunion" takes longer to get to its somewhat similar revelation. It also has three characters -- men who meet in the motel room following their 25th high school class reunion. The three of them had also met in the same room following their graduation in the '80s. We learn late in the play (here's a more explicit spoiler alert) that two of these men had a sexual encounter with each other that distant night, in this room. But none of the three men is openly gay, 25 years later.

Considering how candor about homosexuality has become so much more common since the '60s, it's amazing that Coward's play and its characters were more open about the subject in 1966 than are the characters in Moss' brand-new play, set in the present day in Massachusetts.

Perhaps we should allow for the fact that Coward's characters are veterans of the theater, an arena where homosexuals could come out sooner than they did in the general culture. By contrast, the men in "Reunion" clearly grew up in a world where a premium was placed on being conventionally masculine, even macho -- long before Massachusetts pioneered legal same-sex marriage.

Still, while watching "A Song at Twilight," we shouldn't credit only its theatrical milieu for its frank tone. Let's not forget that when it opened in 1966, England was still a year away from decriminalizing homosexual acts - a point that director Art Manke makes in a program note and that Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps makes in a press release. Give Coward himself some of the credit for being such an uncowardly lion.

The remarkably advanced treatment of homosexuality in "A Song at Twilight" is in stark contrast to its dramatic style, which is rather old-fashioned, not only now but even in 1966. But Manke and his team - including actors Bruce Davison, Sharon Lawrence and Roxanne Hart - find a lot of life in the old-fashioned tropes, especially in the second act. (By the way, those who saw a revival of "A Song at Twilight" four years ago at the Odyssey Theatre will probably be somewhat less startled by the play's audacity than those who are seeing it for the first time.)

"Reunion," on the other hand, seems old-fashioned in both its dramatic structure (is it just me, or have we all seen a few too many plays set at reunions of old friends?) and in its rather reticent approach to homosexuality.

This is reflected in the marketing of the production, which doesn't begin to suggest a hint of gay content, as well as in the text. Presumably the marketers (and perhaps the playwright?) wanted audiences to be sufficiently surprised by the revelation of a previous man-on-man moment when it's finally recalled in the theater. But it isn't all that difficult to guess in advance, despite the hush-hush approach.

Michael Gladis and Kevin Berntson in "Reunion," photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

Meanwhile, this treatment of homosexuality as an issue-that-still-hardly-dares-to-speak-its name seems a little outdated and slightly condescending to audiences. Simply in 2014 marketing terms, I'm wondering if explicitly mentioning a gay angle in pre-show marketing might actually attract more theatergoers than it would deter.

At any rate, despite its relatively discreet approach to homosexuality in comparison to Coward's play from nearly five decades ago, "Reunion" is hardly discreet in its approach to middle-aged men getting together and behaving again like rowdy teenagers. Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt marshals her cast (Tim Cummings, Michael Gladis, Kevin Berntsen) into impressive displays of man-boy anxiety and anger, fueled by alcohol and '80s rock.

"Reunion" closes Sunday, but "A Song at Twilight" plays through April 13.

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