Noel Coward’s comedy of manners ridiculing the world of modern art may be titled "Nude with Violin," but neither nude nor violin distracts from the solid performances of an ensemble delivering Coward’s wit with style. The result is a solid evening of light comedy at the Little Theatre of Alexandria.
The text has its delights but is not packed with big laugh lines that can be stacked one on top of the other to build a sense of hilarity. Instead, there are individual comments, rejoinders and asides that draw more chuckles and smiles than bursts of laughter. The play is more notable for its sense of style than its high comedy, and director Howard Vincent Kurtz is always a fine choice to head any production of a stylish piece.
The play presents the events following the funeral of a famous modern artist when his estranged family gathers with hopes of hearing just what fortunes may come their way with the reading of the will. They learn with deep dismay that not only has the artist died without a will, he died without a fortune.
What is more, he has left a letter admitting that he never painted any of the works on which his fame is based. Not his first significant success, "Portrait of Marjorie," in which no one can detect the slightest hint of a portrait, nor the primitive colorful nudes of his "Jamaican Period."
The letter is in the hands of the deceased’s long-time valet and companion, a role that was originated by Sir John Gielgud in London and which Coward himself portrayed when the play was staged on Broadway. Here John Barclay Burns turns his stiff upper lip to the delivery of drolleries such as his rejoinder to a character who says "I believe life is for the living, don’t you?" It is with a devastating undertone of disdain that he replies: "Its difficult to know what else one could do with it."
The family’s hope of making any future earnings out of the paintings he left behind depend on their ability to keep this posthumous confession secret, and thus, they are at the mercy of one surrogate painter after another who emerges to blackmail them while revealing the story behind their participation in the fraud. These include a former stripper masquerading as a Russian princess (the striking Megan Murphy), a coarse American with her silent gigolo by her side portrayed with panache by Diane Linton Sams and Geoffrey Brand, and an imposing practitioner of a new religious trend "Immersion." The "immersionist" it is given memorable moments on stage in the debut performance by DeJeanette Horne.
The members of the family are at the core of the ensemble, however, and Kurtz has assembled a cast for these roles and directed them so well that each is a distinct personality. The role of the widow gets the least of Coward’s gifts for character definition, but Gayle Nichols-Grimes’ performance makes the most of what there is. It is to her credit that she reaches a level that contributes to the sense of ensemble balance. Elizabeth Keith, on the other hand, takes full advantage of Coward’s description of her role of the artist’s daughter as having "a style of her own and a sense of humor which perhaps she inherited from her father."
Adding to the sense of assurance the ensemble presents is Michael Fisher as perhaps the greatest victim of the fraud, the art dealer who handled the collection over the years. He, too, delivers precisely what Coward’s script calls for: "dapper, shrewd enough although his manner is inclined to be pompous and didactic on occasion."
"Nude with Violin" may not be Coward’s finest hour, but in the hands of Kurtz’ crew it delivers a few fine hours for a fall evening.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.