STIFF UPPER BRITS

Reviving the quintessential Fifties drama is no easy matter; so many of the values and beliefs of the period seem dated. The best approach is to be as true to the period as possible. Director Jeremy Cole takes Terence Rattigan's charming Separate Tables--two linked one-acts from the England of the postwar era--and rediscovers the polite realities that masked a multitude of the period's hypocrisies. It's a gentle, intelligent evening of theater that nevertheless strikes a tough blow or two.

English accents, of course, present problems for most of the actors in the South Suburban Theatre Company--as they do for many small theater troupes in town. Actors have always had to learn to do accents, but few in this town are gifted at it--and in the past year, the problem has become increasingly irritating from show to show. Then, too, though Cole's realistic set is terrific, he sets chairs alone where there should be small tables accompanying them. No doubt the tables would have presented almost insurmountable logistical problems, but it just looks too odd without them.

In the first playlet, "The Table by the Window," we meet most of the characters, denizens of the middle-class Hotel Beauregard in Bournemouth, England. They all eat at separate tables in the hotel dining room but chat across their books and newspapers to each other. Mrs. Railton-Bell (a perfect blend of arrogance, cold self-will and mean-spiritedness on the part of Mercedes Magee), the undisputed queen bee of this buzzing hive, rails on about her social views whenever possible. Lady Mattheson (played with delicate ambivalence by Sandra Shipley) meekly replies.

An old man reads his history books, a quarrelsome old lady keeps up with the races and throws out a caustic remark now and then, an Oxford science student (another strong performance by Gene Gillette) and his mistress read constantly and walk out of the dining room in disgust whenever the others become too noisy. Mrs. Cooper runs the hotel and is ever brisk, efficient and secretly sweet--a winning performance by Joan Korte. Absent are Mrs. Railton-Bell's grown daughter and a retired military man named Major Pollack, both of whom we meet in the second act.

Into this staid ecosystem comes the mysterious, beautifully dressed Mrs. Shrankland (Shana Kelly, who balances neatly between studied glamour and deep despair). She has come to find her ex-husband and turn him on if she can. But the dashing leftist journalist, John Malcolm, thinks his first wife is poison--during their marriage she manipulated him by withholding sex--and the poor guy's passion was too much for him. He ended up beating her and going to jail for it.

In the Fifties the husband might have been forgiven by the public for such behavior, but it's a tougher nut to swallow in the Nineties. Still, the emotional dynamics of a strained marriage are completely comprehensible--the couple spar because they fail to understand each other. When the light of understanding breaks through, there are finally grounds for a relationship, and the play's resolution feels natural enough. Jim Hunt gives the finest performance of the evening, double cast as Malcolm and the Major.

The second act, "Table Number Seven," takes place a year later. The students are married and have a little baby in tow. Major Pollack appears for the first time, along with the mouselike daughter of the formidable Mrs. Railton-Bell. The daughter adores the officer, who likewise thinks well of her. But the Major harbors a nasty secret that the old barracuda, Mrs. Railton-Bell, uncovers. She exposes him to the whole hotel, and he is very nearly driven away. In this case, though, as in the first, basic human decency prevails over moralistic superiority.

And decency is what fuels the engine of these modest stories. Everyone at the hotel must behave well according to the strictures of Fifties social conduct. But good conduct for them doesn't mean intolerance, it means justice tempered with mercy. The plays work because they are so natural--Rattigan's characters are recognizable without being stereotypical. And though some of the details are so politically incorrect by today's standards that they may make one wince, the fundamentals of decency never change.

 
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