Terence Rattigan’s “Separate Tables,” two one-acts cobbled into one evening at Theatre 40, is a prime example of 1950s theater at its most retro: chatty, discursive and often busy to a fault. But under the assured direction of veteran Jules Aaron, it frequently enthralls.
The setting — exquisitely realized in Jeff G. Rack’s set and Michèle Young’s period costumes — is a residential hotel in 1950s Bournemouth, England, the home to a select clientele of regular tenants, most of whom appear in both acts. Also recurring is the play’s common themes: the ravages of loneliness and the redemptive power of love.
An exponent of practical human charity, Miss Cooper (Diana Angelina), the manager of the hotel, is having an affair with boozy leftist journalist Malcolm (Adrian Neil), actually a disgraced Labour politician who served time in prison for attacking his wife and is laying low under an assumed name. When his ex (Susan Priver) “coincidentally” arrives at the hotel, their old flame violently combusts. It’s a fraught scenario that seems bound for inevitable disaster — until Miss Cooper smothers the explosion in a near-saintly gesture.
In the second act, longtime hotel resident and sad poseur “Major” Pollack (David Hunt Stafford) is caught in a snare of lies and disgrace after his arrest for scandalous actions in a local cinema. Rallying her fellow residents, Mrs. Railton-Bell (Mona Lee Wylde) insists on the Major’s expulsion from the hotel, much to the distress of her pathologically timid daughter, Sybil (Roslyn Cohn), the Major’s particular admirer. Once again, Miss Cooper charitably intervenes — but will kindness prove enough to free the faux Major and the downtrodden Sybil from her domineering mother?
The cast includes Melissa Collins, John Wallace Combs, Michele Schultz, Caleb Slavens, Suzan Solomon, and Mariko Van Kampen. A proven actors’ director, Aaron elicits solid turns from his performers. However, pride of place in this well-rendered evening goes to Hunt Stafford and Cohn — dazzling as a pitiable pair whose ascent to a kind of nobility is as unexpected as it is emotionally cathartic.