Stage Raw: SEPARATE TABLES is “fun to watch”

In the 1940s and 50s, British playwright Terrence Rattigan was considered an important playwright, scoring successes in both England and the U.S. with The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, Separate Tables, and other works. But with the arrival of John Osborne and the Angry Young Men in the 1960s, his works suddenly seemed stodgy, conventional and dated, and he fell from public grace. Since his knighting in 1971, and his death in 1977, his plays have experienced a minor revival and aroused renewed interest. They’ve been successfully revived on stage, screen and television. And they’re recognized as finely crafted period pieces, which can still generate considerable dramatic heat when they’re well performed.

Separate Tables is set in the genteel residential Beauregard Hotel, in Bournemouth. It’s a sort of miniature closed society, snobbish and inbred, where the guests all know each other, know or guess one another’s secrets, and gossip endlessly. At the top of the social hierarchy are the dithery, impoverished Lady Mathison (Mariko Van Kampen) and the formidable, bossy and judgmental Mrs. Railton-Bell (Mona Lee Wylde), who has ruthlessly subjugated her 33-year-old, sexually repressed daughter Sybil (Roslyn Cohn). Mr. Fowler (John Wallace Combs), a retired headmaster, lives in hopes of visits from the “old boys” he presided over in palmier days. Major Pollock (David Hunt Stafford) is a bogus major who pretends to an impressive past. Mr. Malcolm (Adrian Neil) is an alcoholic former left-wing politico, a divorced man whose career was wrecked by time in prison. Miss Meachum (Michele Schultz) is a feisty, independent-minded spinster, and Charles Stratton (Caleb Slavens) is a medical student who has brought his wife Jean (Melissa Collins) to the hotel where he thinks he can study without distractions. Miss Cooper, the busy proprietress of the hotel, is more tolerant than most of her guests, but she’s secretly nursing a hopeless love for Fowler.

The plot kicks in when stylish but nervous fashion model Ann Shankland (Susan Priver), aka the former Mrs. Fowler, arrives in the hotel in hopes of reviving her always volatile relations with her former husband, to the dismay of Miss Cooper. And a second plot strand emerges when Major Pollock is involved in a scandal, which inspires Mrs. Railton-Bell to a frenzy of vindictive self-righteousness. She’s the kind of “good woman” who gives a bad name to virtue, and sets out to punish the inoffensive Pollock for his “crimes.”

The play is the kind of old-fashioned ensemble piece which provides a wealth of opportunities for the actors as they explore the desperation that lurks beneath the surface of quiet, “respectable” genteel lives. It’s all a bit too predictable, but it’s fun to watch, and apparently much to the taste of Theatre 40’s loyal audience. Director Jules Aaron presides over a solid, generally well-acted production. Diana Angelina plays the tolerant and well-meaning Miss Cooper without ever succumbing to the merely “goody-goody,” while Wylde’s Mrs. Railton-Bell is the kind of woman you love to hate, and Stafford makes a touching figure as the disgraced Major.

Set designer Jeff G. Rack captures the fustiness of the hotel, and utilizes a turntable to expedite the changes of scene within it. Michele Young provides the 1950s costumes, and Judi Lewin is responsible for the hair and makeup.