More than a dozen years ago, I wrote an article for Charlotte magazine celebrating the sudden proliferation of start-up theatre companies in the Queen City. It appeared at that time that Charlotte could perhaps become a “theatre town,” a possibility made even more significant by the recent – and infamous – demise of Charlotte Repertory Theatre. The Actor’s Gym was one of those entrepreneurial theatre groups and, like the others, it eventually succumbed to the relentless pressures of finding reliable space, funding, talent, and audiences.

So, it was a happy surprise when Tony Wright, the jack-of-all-theatre-trades who founded The Actor’s Gym, announced the production of Noël Coward‘s Fallen Angels, which opened November 29 at the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square. According to an article in the Charlotte Observer, Wright also plans to produce another play in the spring.

Fallen Angels was an interesting choice for the Gym’s comeback. While there were examples, such as Karina Caporino’s shenanigans as the overwrought Jane, of the physical theatre techniques that Wright and the Gym were known for, this British drawing-room farce relies primarily on verbal comedy.

One of Coward’s early works, and less popular than his Blithe Spirit, Fallen Angels premiered in London in 1925 starring Tallulah Bankhead. Taking place within a 24-hour period, it presents two rather vapid upper bourgeois couples, Julia and Fred Sterroll (Jennifer Barnette and David Hensley) and Jane and Willy Banbury (Karina Caporino and Michael Anderson). Fred and Willy are old chums who share a love of golf; Julia and Jane are bosom friends who share a salacious secret: before they were married, they both had affairs with a Frenchman, Maurice Duclos (Emmanuel Barbe).

When the play opens, Fred is getting ready to leave for a golfing holiday with Willy, and Julia is explaining to her husband that, while after five years of marriage they still love each other, they are no longer “in love.” Julia insists that she prefers the calm of their current affection to the tempest of passion, but when Jane later arrives to announce excitedly that Maurice is coming to London to see them, it becomes immediately clear that both women are, as Julia exclaims, “ripe for a lapse” into their old sensual ways. Through the rest of the play, we watch Julia and Jane get more and more hysterical as they anticipate Maurice’s arrival, dressed like flappers at the Hotsy Totsy and guzzling martinis and champagne.

The play is a sketchbook of caricatures: the boring and clueless husbands, the romantic Frenchman, and the know-it-all maid (Erin Darcy), who speaks fluent French, sings, and plays the piano (which Darcy really did), and is an expert on everything from golfing to medicine. Even Jane and Julia are allowed only a hint of complexity. What carries this play is Coward’s wit.

The quick comic lines ask for a bulls-eye delivery. This play is light, but it isn’t easy. The Actor’s Gym cast didn’t always hit the sweet spot, but there were plenty of funny moments, especially from Barnette, whose dark and resonant voice conveyed a dry wit, and Caporino, whose large eyes and long limbs added extra humor to proclamations like, “If I choose to come in naked on a tricycle, it’s no concern of yours!”

When Fallen Angels opened in 1925, the women’s frank admissions of premarital sex and the possibility of adultery were scandalous enough to alert the censors, who threatened to deny a performance license. Nearly a hundred years later, it is no longer as shocking, and yet, the double standard that the play mocks – that men may be proud of their youthful wild oats, while women, as Fred says, “should be humble and ashamed” – is not quite cold in its grave.

Fallen Angels continues through Sunday, December 8. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.