Playwright: Noel Coward. At: Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at the Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-404-7336; www.remybumppo.org; $42.50-$52.50. Runs through: Jan. 10
Where would Victorian melodrama, retro soap operas and contemporary advice columns be without otherwise contented spouses occasionally wondering about "the one that got away?" In conventional fiction, such antisocial fantasies usually conclude in females confessing their shame and males forgiving them their weaknesses. In 1923, however, an irreverent young Noel Coward defended the right of women to engage in guilt-free frolics before settling down with suitors patiently waiting for them to weary of fun and excitement.
Upper-class matrons Julia Sterroll and Jane Banbury, having enjoyed the attentions of a charming Frenchman named Maurice DuClos in the carefree days following the war ( for Brits, what happens on the continent, stays on the continent ) are now married to placid husbands of whom they are very fond, but also slightly bored. On this weekend, though, when the hubs are off golfing in Chichester, Julia and Jane receive word that Maurice is in London and is coming to visit his dear lady friends.
The formula for farce involves characters responding to a dubious premise with impeccable logicin this case, the "angels of the hearth" ( as wives were then esteemed ) promptly falling prey to nostalgic fancies sparking volatile emotions necessitating infusions of cigarettes, martinis, champagne, coffee and liqueurs pursuant to gathering courage in anticipation of the reunion.
In deference to audience sensibilities on our own side of the Atlantic, Shannon Cochran's direction for this Remy Bumppo production also delivers abundant physical hijinks as the besotted imbibers proceed from jocose to bellicose to lachrymose to comatose levels of inebriation. Refereeing the mayhem is housekeeper Saunders, whose life of domestic and civil service renders her capable of dealing with crises ranging from hangovers to threats of imminent fisticuffs ( and who may, herself, have once shared a dalliance with the charming Mauricethose Red Cross nurses got around, you know ).
Fred Geyer, Jesse Dornan and Joshua Moaney acquit themselves with alacrity as the befuddled males, but the show belongs to the three actresses shouldering the bulk of the madcap action. Eliza Stoughten, Emjoy Gavino and Annabel Armour discharge their athletic duties with a composure and grace belying the stamina required to execute full-body rolls off pianos, sprints in sling-backed high-heeled slippers and something known in theatrical jargon as a "fruit and feather fight." Heightening the giddiness factor is Christopher Kriz's score of vo-de-o-do ditties, Jeff Bauer's pop-up deco apartment and Janice Pytel's serrated-edge maid's cap and apron suggesting a shock-balloon in comic-book art.