“My running joke is when this play closes my career is over.” Director Art Manke mocks his own vocational fears over a cup of coffee in a café next to Pasadena Playhouse, one of the nationwide venues he is happy to call an artistic home. As a director (as well as a choreographer and occasional actor), Manke is well aware of the precariousness of the job market.
Nevertheless, for more than two decades, he has carved out a career with a body of work that began with his 11 years as co-artistic director of A Noise Within and now stretches from Hawaii to the East Coast. 2012-13 has been a particularly full season for the director with three major directing projects back-to-back: The Three Musketeers at Denver Center, Sense and Sensibility at Milwaukee Repertory Theater and now Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels here in Pasadena.
“I have been lucky this year,” he concedes with a smile, “but after Fallen Angels nothing is lined up, so I guess my career is over. Who knows what will come? It used to be that I would panic when I had a gap, but it has been enough years now that I sort of recognize that the cycle happens and I know I will not starve. But at this point my future is unknown.”
The factor that suggests Manke’s career just may survive is that he has created an important niche for himself. Though he is well versed in many genres, he has become well-known throughout the widespread resident theater community as a classics director and as a master of style and manners, specifically English drawing room comedy — and especially those of the 20th century British master of light comedies, Noel Coward.
Those are certainly his calling cards at Pasadena Playhouse, based on productions of Private Lives, the 2003 American premiere of Coward’s last play Star Quality, and Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife. He was an obvious choice to helm Fallen Angels, which had originally been announced as the February 2010 production at the Playhouse. Unfortunately, that engagement became the first to be canceled after the playhouse closed temporarily due to financial problems.
Fallen Angels is a comedy from 1925 about Julia and Jane, a pair of best friends whose husbands are away on a golf trip just as the handsome, debonair and French Maurice (with whom both had torrid affairs before the marriages) is visiting town. The play offers hilarious moments and a rare opportunity for two women to carry a play. Still, it is not in the top tier of the Coward canon and is rarely seen.
Manke concedes, “It is not one of Coward’s masterpieces. It has challenges. You have to work a bit harder. In the end it is just as satisfying, if not more so, because it is fresh and people don’t know it, so the audience is not reciting the best-known lines along with the actors. It’s like finding a new world. It hasn’t been done professionally on this coast for decades [in 1994, however, an all-star cast in Santa Monica recorded an LA Theatre Works radio production of it]. For the last 15 years or so, a British producer has had the rights tied up because he was hoping to do a production in New York.”
The heart of the piece lies in the wonderfully real and funny relationship between Jane and Julia. Manke compares them to Lucy and Ethel. “What is so fun about it is that they are total opposites that complete each other.” What the play does not have, Manke believes, is any moral or message. “The joy of this particular play for us right now, coming out of a year of this long bitter election, when people are just fed up with politics and all of this fiscal cliff stuff, is that it is great to just have a comedy that really is just to make people laugh. It is just an entertainment. Some of the [Coward] plays say more — Private Lives and Design for Living have very strong message about alternative lifestyles. But you never have to apologize just for enjoying Coward’s drollery. He is a great writer — even lesser Coward is better than most first-rate plays you come across.”
Manke certainly makes no apologies for being part of the continual revival of British comedies of manner. “I love them. They poke fun at man’s desire to be something other than a beast. The British particularly, at that time, seemed to aspire to something grander — desired to have manners and follow protocol and courtesies and all that. These plays reveal that underneath all of that surface stuff we are just common human beings like everybody.”
Though timing and witty banter are the hallmarks of these plays, without a sense of truth they become brittle and break apart. Coward’s plays remain in constant revival throughout the English-speaking world not because actors hold their cups or sip martinis in the correct way, but because the characters have some depth. “What you really have to do,” Manke insists, “is create truthful human behavior underneath, then those behavioral elements will fall into play and will follow. We still begin rehearsals with fundamental Stanislavski work. What are the actions, objectives, obstacles, and given circumstances?”
Fortunately for Manke, he works at high-powered theaters that attract top-rate talent. As Julia and Jane, Pamela J. Gray and Katie MacNichol come with tremendous theater and television credits. Manke has worked closely with MacNichol in several projects and met Gray last summer at the Ojai Playwrights Conference.
Both have long histories with Noel Coward. In fact, one of MacNichol’s first experiences as an audience member at a professional theater was seeing Fallen Angels at Maine’s Portland Stage when she was 16. “I was transported,” she recalls. “It was a student matinee and the actors came out to answer questions. The actresses were in jeans and Julia still had her wig cap on and lit a cigarette at the edge of the stage and said “˜Wadya you wanna know.’ That was the moment for me when I knew I was going to be an actress. It was my world. Hearing that language and the quickness and funniness and the smartness of the characters, even as a teenager — it just appealed to me so much.”
Gray starred on Broadway in 2010 with Victor Garber in Coward’s Present Laughter. “I was the slut,” she explains with a laugh. “Present Laughter is an extremely sophisticated, well-constructed play. It reveals some of the challenges of Fallen Angels in that many of the characters are completely conscious of how witty they are being. That can be the trap.”
Even by the third day of rehearsal, both women are reveling in Manke’s authentic approach to the character work. MacNichol says, “These women have a real relationship with each other. That’s why Art is such a good director for this, he is so focused on developing the connections between the people, not just worrying on day one about whether it is funny or fast. If you just slap style onto nothing, it will be so empty.”
Gray agrees. “Bad drama school acting — good little soldiers overacting.” She has enjoyed the table work discussing the play, the character and world. Manke brought in New York director Joshua Chase Gold, to assist and serve as dramaturg, who prepared a 50-page research package on the period, Coward and the play. Gray found the research invaluable. “The more comfortable I am with material, I have more ability to listen, and the more comfortable I am with myself in the material. I want to be listening all the time, forget the technical constraints and be in the moment. You always do relationship and space work along the way. The more grounded I am in the words and the why, the easier it is for me to hear my acting partner. Also to get the sense of the arc of their relationship, how it tracks.”
MacNichol is just as serious about her comedy. “For me it is a layering process,” she explains. “I trust that over the course of the four weeks we are together these little filo pastry dough layers will join together. You always have to develop the relationship and chemistry, but it is easier because this play supports the friendship so much: fighting, then clinging to each other and needing each other. I don’t freak out about it, I trust that we will layer this thing. Part of it is Pamela and Kate and the rest is Jane and Julia. It will be only our version. Some of the great actors have played these roles, but you can’t think ‘Will mine be as good as Tallulah Bankhead?'”
When this production was initially scheduled in 2009, the Pasadena Playhouse itself was about to become a fallen angel. Now it’s back, and Manke credits its artistic director Sheldon Epps with the most influence in reviving the Playhouse after its recent troubles and emergence from bankruptcy. “Sheldon turned this place around through force of will and wonderful connections.” Manke exclaims. “He has such a strong artistic vision that it is easy to get behind and support him. In other instances where theaters have gone under, quite often it was because there really wasn’t such a strong artistic vision to support. Plays will come and go, but it is the vision that sustains an institution.”
Fallen Angels, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101. Opens Sunday. Tue-Sat 8 pm, Sat 4 pm and Sun 2 pm. Tickets: $32-$100. www.pasadenaplayhouse.org. 626-356-7529.
***All Fallen Angels production photos by Jim Cox