Noel [2004]

Are you a bust at parties? Dull? Can never think of just the thing to say until everyone has gone home? Watch any of these classic Noel Coward plays, one-act playlets, or dramatized short stories, and soon you'll be regaling your guests with such ripping bon mots as, "She's one of the few actresses living who can be dressed by Schiaparelli and looks as if she had been upholstered by Maples." Okay, we may not get it, but doesn't it just fizz with sophistication? Noel Coward was a true Renaissance man, a celebrated, playwright, composer, author, and actor. To quote the title of one of his biographies, he had A Talent to Amuse. But in his most enduring works, he found "genuine emotion under the gloss." This gala, more than 19-hour, seven-disc box set (plus more than 12 hours of bonus audio interviews, musical performances, speeches, and radio plays) immerses viewers in Coward's vanished urbane world, where formidable and fascinating characters are often caught between their natural instincts and the laws of society. Take Gilda, Otto, and Leo, who, flout convention by living as three in the quintessential Coward play, Design for Living (1979). Or the bohemian Bliss family, whose members each, independently, invite a guest up for a very chaotic weekend in Hay Fever (1984). Or monstrously self-absorbed actor Garry Essendine, who frantically keeps dewy-eyed admirers, an ex-wife, and a persistent playwright at bay in Present Laughter (1981). Or Amanda and Elyot, a divorced couple reunited on their respective honeymoons in Private Lives (1976). These farcical comedies of bad manners, all among Coward's most popular, are "jagged with sophistication" and effervescent with "easy, swift dialogue." But it's not all gay banter and cocktails. The Vortex (1969), the once-controversial play that put Coward on the map, is anything but a laughing matter. The Noel Coward Collection is rich with "small and large enchantments." The productions, originally broadcast on the BBC, cannot be said to be definitive, but they are each tastefully mounted (only Present Laughter is marred by intrusive shots of a live theatre audience), and for the most part, superbly acted. Penelope Keith (To the Manor Born) is splendid as the tempestuous Amanda in Private Lives and the theatrical Judith Bliss in Hay Fever. Joan Collins acquits herself admirably in Tonight at 8:30 (1991), a series of eight one-act plays that range from light comedy to tragedy. Other casting coups include Paul Scofield and Deborah Kerr in A Song at Twilight (1982) about a successful writer, his former lover, and a secret she threatens to reveal, and Judi Dench and Ian Holm as Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill (1985), a wartime drama. This marvelously entertaining anthology is an embarrassment of riches and essential for theatre buffs or anyone looking for an oasis of smart and cultured entertainment in a Superbad world. --Donald Liebenson

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