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"Waiting in the Wings"

"Waiting in the Wings," which flopped in 1960, should thrive today.

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An even more delightful surprise is Waiting in the Wings, Noël Coward's fiftieth play (1960), an undeserved flop then and a greatly deserving revival now. Somewhat diminished by Jeremy Sams's softening adaptation, it still remains a minor gem in that bittersweet mode at which Coward excelled. A seemingly inconsequential piece about former star stage actresses living out their declining years in the Wings, a less-than-lavish retirement home, the play is a wise and compassionate address of the problems of aging and death that confront us all.

There is wit, charity, stoicism, and enormous theatrical know-how in Waiting in the Wings. No need to detail the plot: the solarium the ladies crave but that a chintzy governing board would deny them; the breach of privacy by an unscrupulous columnist who pseudonymously infiltrates the home but whose gossipy column finally does much more good than harm, even humanizing the woman who wrote it; the long-standing rift between two former divas, May Davenport and Lotta Bainbridge, which the latter's reasonableness finally bridges.

Hard hearts may object to the good old-fashioned way in which laughs and tears are apportioned with an almost mathematical cunning, although I expect Wings to outlive most of the fashionable flavors of this era. Given a good production -- and the present one is near-perfect -- it provides the kind of civilized and civilizing pleasure that a less commercially greedy Broadway of yesteryear so satisfyingly offered. Here is soul-sustaining entertainment for anyone who can perceive that, even in a retirement home, all the stage is a world, one we all act on and must eventually bow out of without a curtain call.

In a top-to-bottom-splendid cast, there is one minor hiccup. Whereas May is sublimely embodied by Rosemary Harris, Lauren Bacall is not quite right as Lotta. Miss Bacall was first a beautiful clotheshorse, then a radiant star, both of which she still conveys here. But she was never a penetrating actress, a lack she likewise displays. Yet without her mass appeal, this show would never have been mounted, and -- despite insufficient sense of period and place -- she still has her stellar aura, notably when she charmingly sings a bright ditty.

No one, however, could be better than Rosemary Murphy, Elizabeth Wilson, Patricia Conolly, Helen Stenborg, Barnard Hughes, Crista Moore, Dana Ivey, Simon Jones, and Amelia Campbell (each of whom would merit a lengthy paragraph, and Miss Harris two of them), with the others scarcely behind. All this under Michael Langham's uncommonly canny direction, to which Ray Klausen's scenery, Alvin Colt's costumes, and Ken Billington's lighting contribute their level best. To miss Waiting in the Wings would be a major folly; not having a good time at it is a virtual -- no, a real -- impossibility.


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