By Joe Straw
About the worst a person could do is to dine alone in the Beauregard Private Hotel in Bournemouth, England, which is southwest of London, nestled on the south coast, three minutes from the beach, near the English Channel.
The year is 1958, a settled time of postwar England. Sitting and daydreaming in the dinning room, the diners stare off surrounded by the accommodations of a dreamier hotel with a loved one rather than at this single table in a lesser class lodge. Still, they all make the best of a bad lot.
The tables are made for one, for sitting alone. And sitting alone means you may eat with or without impeccable manners.
However, through meticulous observation, one notices of the diners that the meal is eaten carefully, placing the fork quietly under the medaillon or the goulash this night, taking small bleakly bites so as to listen to the conversation. And then, waiting carefully for the opening, the diners may then join the intercourse at a comfortable or prescribe time.
But for now, waitress Doreen’s (Susan Solomon) rattling’s words are suggesting servings for the patrons who are offering only impotent replies which are of little value for those wishing to jump into a tête-à-tête.
Silence at the dinner table without the chinwag is something they are all accustomed to at this point in their sad lives, what with husbands died, lovers left, and divorces settled.
But, do they dress! The ladies dine as though they are holding court, the finest dresses with bedazzling jewelry and furs. The one odd exception is a transient guest, Jean Tanner, who is wearing (shocking!) trousers, albeit nice-fitting Katherine-Hepburn-like brown slacks. (All impeccably dressed by Michéle Young, Costume Design.)
Jean is, neither here, nor there, with a man, Charles Stratton (Caleb Stevens). Both are buried deep in books not wanting to give away their relationship. And they give the appearance they hardly know each other until they get up and leave, one following the other.
If one were to sit in the dining room, and casually glance about the room, one would see Mr. Fowler (John Wallace Combs), a school master with a nervous hand, holding on to something to steady his nerves, wanting desperately to connect, but possibly more with someone of the same sex.
Miss Meacham (Michele Schultz), seated to the left of Mr. Fowler, is gruff and to the point. She is bundled in an outfit meant to keep her warm in minus 20-degree weather, and she is engulfed in her book, Racing Up To Date, about dashing horses. She keeps a wooden horse with a furry tail on her table. Her coiffure is of an old un-styled blond wig, intended to make her look younger but with little success, not that she even cares. But, the giveaways of age are those dark thick sole shoes. And she speaks in a gruff manner if only to make a strong point. Still, she is lovely in her manner.
Lady Matheson (Mariko Van Kampen) is to Miss Meacham’s left. She is beautifully dark, her frame is politely petite, and she handles her food delicately as though it were some extravagant dish from an exotic hotel. Despite her appearance, she has little money living on her deceased husband’s annuity. She is sensible in manner and deed.
And to her left is Mrs. Railton-Bell (Mona Lee Wylde) a beautiful woman, dressed to the nines, but with an edge, and unforgiving in the fault of others. She inserts herself into the lives of the other lonely guests if only to make them better individuals. Her mind is in everyone’s business whether she understands it or not.
The others speak about the woman joining them on this day being from a fashionable neighborhood in London – Mayfair – arriving that very morning with four suitcases and a hatbox. When Mrs. Anne Shankland (Susan Priver) arrives, she does not disappoint. Something parted when she entered the room, she is tall and stunning, holding her purse with just a touch of a smile from her broadly painted lips, a model in the most stunning sense of the word, with perfectly painted nails, long flowing dark brown hair, and a silky taffeta dress that looked to be poured over her body.
Mr. Malcolm (Adrian Neil) rushes in for dinner hardly noticing Mrs. Shankland. It has been a long day at the New Outlook, the paper he writes for, and possibly he has stopped at The Feathers Hotel bar. But, the moment he sees her, his emotional repertoire reverberates with his needle in the red. Either she leaves or he does since they cannot both be there.
Jules Aaron, the director, is superb in his attention to details, which makes Separate Tables a magnificent outing and a wonderful night of theatre. The two acts are almost like two separate plays with the first act-taking place mostly at night and the other act, a lighter fare, happening during the day, eighteen months later. Aaron plays upon the memories of time and place in this play with music that highlights the entrance of the main characters and lights dimming for a supreme focus on character. It’s almost like watching Hitchcock and getting that tingling sensation anticipating suspense.
Unlike the Burt Lancaster movie, the first act in the play only verbally introduces two characters – Major Pollack (David Hunt Stafford) and Sybil Railton-Bell (Roslyn Cohn) – while the second act highlights these two characters. It is better if they were accentuated in the first act so the audience expects them and the acts tie together.
Jeff G. Rack’s Set Design is wonderfully meticulous in the design of a rotating set that turns from a dinning room into a lounge area and then back again to the separate tables.
Diana Angelina is Miss Cooper, the woman who runs the hotel. Miss Cooper is straight back, to the point, and tries to keep every customer satisfied and especially one in particular. But things are not going according to plan. She doesn’t get the man she wants. Angelina should try harder to make that relationship work. There’s a lot to be said of Angelina’s performance, the way she controls her space, and the manner in which she holds her emotions in check. One wonders if there is another choice to bring that emotion of losing someone, her lover, to the forefront.
Roslyn Cohn does a terrific job as the lugubrious Sybil Railton-Bell. Sybil is a character that is probably on the autism spectrum. She loves infinitely and is betrayed by the smallest infraction. Maybe she is not able to process the circumstances of how she feels betrayed. Sybil is a prisoner of her own mental constraints and breaking free of those feelings will release her from those bonds. Cohn’s craft is excellent and curiosity added would move her more into finding that freedom.
Melissa Collins has room to play Jean Stratton, a woman, a feminist, and a hell raiser given the chance. Stratton has a wonderful imagination and a perspective on sizing individuals on a moments notice. But Collins doesn’t size up the participants in the first scene and perhaps she should, given the nuanced description of everyone in her next scene. Stratton has a strong personality, and the ability to move in the direction of her own choosing. There is strong conflict building in their opening scene that is now played as a lighthearted encounter. The second act reveals stronger disagreements and indicates that maybe this relationship is not going to work. Collins is stunning, has a wonderful presence, and knows her way around the stage.
John Wallace Combs is a very reliable and wonderful actor. In his role as a retired schoolteacher, Mr. Fowler, Combs hits all of the right buttons. But maybe more urgency is needed in the first act when Mr. Fowler’s male friend does not show up. Fowler sits at a table with little interest in the four women at other tables and yet he clamors for the art student that doesn’t show no matter how hard he tries to get in touch with him.
There is a violent streak in Mr. Malcolm played by Adrian Neil. We never see the full extent of his violence; one that happens in the past and possibly gets him time in prison, and the other in the first act with his ex-wife. Mr. Malcolm’s hedonism, and with all of this other moral imperfections, chooses the woman that gives him a greater sense of conflict, a battling nuance, of discovering something new in a relationship. He chooses diversity over substance. One would have liked a stronger definition of his relationship to Miss Cooper. But Neil’s work is solid in this outing.
Susan Priver does some remarkable work on stage as Anne Shankland. She is stunning and manages to command the room with her beauty without doing or saying a thing. But Anne Shakland’s words get her into a lot of trouble. Two divorces later, she brings her melodious lamentations to her table. And now she is back to capture her first fling but conflict abounds in her relationship to that man, a man she so desperately needs now. She seems to take pleasure in conflict, physical or otherwise in her loneliness. This is a tour de force role for Priver.
Michele Schultz does some amazing work as Miss Meacham. Despite being alone and never married Miss Meacham is smart and worldly to boot. She has a supreme realization of humanity and is quite the communicator when the time arises. Schultz gives Miss Meacham a truly defined character, a strong sense of an objective, and a manner, which gives the character her place in the world.
Caleb Slavens has a grand method on stage as Charles Stratton. There are no false moves in his portrayal. Slavens plays Stratton sincerely and to the point. The first scene with his future wife is playful, possibly wanting to hold on to the relationship. But he is focused on his work, studying to be a doctor. He tells his girlfriend to “shut up” and also implores her not to lose the page he is studying so there is a little more conflict to that scene. Slavens, at this point, must be questioning their relationship if she takes lightly his studying and that fits in nicely for a play about loneliness and finding happiness.
In the written play by Terence Rattigan, Mabel is the waitress in the first act follows by Doreen. In this viewing, Doreen is in both acts wonderfully played by Suzan Solomon, an actor, who has a strong craft. She is a superior actor, and everything looks easy for her. Solomon is so spot-on in character. She is just being, and doing it extremely well.
David Hunt Stafford does not disappoint as Major Pollack. Stafford puts his own stamp onto the Pollack characterization. Certainly one can see this character in uniform and wearing the metals he earned, marching when warranted, but this Pollack is a sensitive being, aged, sometimes forgetful, and mostly being an unreliable reporter. It is terrific work.
Mariko Van Kampen is Lady Mathison who is the softer side of humanity. But one is not really sure what this woman is about. Mathison has a relationship with each of the characters but one doesn’t really get a sense of her objective. She is pleasant enough in the role but there must be more to her objective and the conflict must weigh heavily on her purpose.
Mona Lee Wylde presents a strong purpose for the character Mrs. Railton-Bell. Certainly she must have things her way or it’s the highway. Railton-Bell, is consistent in her constant mood of repugnance, accompanied by the lurid glares. She presents her way of gathering incriminating evidence, or what she perceives as incriminating and then acting strongly against it. Wylde is solid in her craft.
Wonderfully produced by David Hunt Stafford in Theatre 40’s fifty first season. And, parking is free. What more could you ask for?
Other members of the outstanding crew are as follows:
J. Kent Inasy – Lighting Designer
Paolo Greco – Sound Designer
Judi Lewin – Makeup/Wigs/Hair Designer
Don Solosan – Stage Manager
Richard Carner – Assistant Stage Manager
Jordan Hoxsie – Assistant Director