Celebrated playwright Noël Coward actually watches over the goings-on of Guild Hall’s production of his comedy medley Tonight at 8:30; there’s a carving of his face at the center of a white awning framing the proscenium. An evening of one-act plays performed by a talented ensemble led by Blythe Danner, Tonight at 8:30 is a lively evening of British wit and wry social commentary filled with laughs, surprises and surprising pathos. Director Tony Walton ties the three plays together with the beautiful set, colored in white, black and red, as well as a piano that is integral to the action of all the plays.
Tonight at 8:30 was originally a cycle of 10 short plays by Coward, with each performance featuring three different pieces, encouraging audiences to return to see new plays each night. Guild Hall’s production is more practical and features Hands Across the Sea, Family Album and Red Peppers. The first two are comedies about British upper class families and how their so-called manners and values get them into trouble, while Red Peppers is a backstage comedy about a down-on-their-luck couple whose failing vaudeville act is taking a toll on their marriage. While all three pieces are very funny and engaging, Red Peppers is the odd one out, with broad characterizations and a less interesting story.
Hands Across the Sea, which opens the evening, takes place in the apartment of a good-natured aristocratic couple who have overbooked their social plans for the evening. The phone rings off the hook, the guests pile in without warning and the laughs are nonstop. Danner was excellent as the lovely, well-meaning Lady Gilpin, as was the rest of the cast. The frenetic energy was jarring at first, but that’s the point—who are all these colorful people, how are they related and what’s the point? It all became clear by the end, and the punch line was satisfying.
The transition from Hands Across the Sea to Family Album was a spectacle in itself. Bobby Peterson, who appears throughout the evening as both actor and pianist, played transitional music on the piano while the running crew rearranged furniture and props. The set change reached a crowd-pleasing conclusion when the piano was moved across the stage while Peterson kept playing.
Family Album, my favorite of the evening, tells the story of the Featherways, a family in mourning for their father. Family Album is less raucously funny and decidedly bittersweet—but also very relatable. With the siblings all having different reactions to their father’s passing, Danner as the deceptively mild-mannered eldest sister berates her siblings for not grieving more. Burrows, the aging butler, waits on the family with great care, even if he isn’t all there. In the end, Danner reveals a startling family secret and the family realizes Burrows isn’t as senile as he appears. Poignant and sweet, Family Album featured great performances and showcased the cast’s vocal talents as the family playfully reminisced through song.
Hands Across the Sea and Family Album are excellent comedies with great surprises and lovable characters—which makes the inclusion of Red Peppers all the more perplexing. The backstage farce features loathsome people who deserve the terrible things about to happen to them, and there’s too much emphasis on the intentionally bad vaudeville act. The cast seemed less confident in Red Peppers; as a result, the joyous energy built up throughout the evening waned and the laughs slowed. Still, Tonight at 8:30 is a lovely evening of theater. Guild Hall’s done Coward proud.
“Tonight at 8:30” runs through August 4 at Guild Hall in East Hampton. For tickets and more information, visit guildhall.org.