Touch of Class

Relative Values showcases Dorothy F. Davis as a grand old dame

When Noel Coward wrote Relative Values in 1951, the Kirkwood Theatre Guild was already 20 years old. The play's an old-fashioned, three-act drawing-room comedy from the days when plays weren't written so much as wrought. The venerable community theater presents the seldom-produced play as part of its 70th-anniversary season, and it makes an entertaining and excellent showcase for the group and, in particular, for Dorothy F. Davis, a KTG veteran who is delightful as Felicity, the Countess of Marshwood.

Felicity is one of Coward's grand old dames who maintains her dignity without sacrificing honesty or humor. She acknowledges that society is changing, but she'll have none of it; at Marshwood, both the servants and the masters are happy with their designated roles. The trouble comes when her son, Nigel (Gerry Love), becomes engaged to an American movie star named Miranda Frayle (Janet Seitz), who happens to be the long-lost sister of Felicity's personal maid, Dora Moxton, a.k.a. Moxie (Kay Love). It's not so bad that Nigel's marrying beneath him, but Miranda, in addition to being American and an actress (two strikes already), has invented a sordid past for herself to make her rise look all the more dramatic. This is more than her sister can bear, so Felicity, with help from butler Crestwell (Richard T. Green), connives to nip the marriage in the bud, save her estate and keep her maid from leaving. Coward is mocking the American propensity for celebrity and reinvention, but the play is also a hurrah for the class structure, which at least gives people rules for finding themselves and their places in the world. If this were Chekhov, the aristocrats would be displaced by the rude Americans, but Coward makes sure the class system and the cherry trees are safe.

Davis anchors not only the household but the play from her place on the sofa. As the chaos swirls around her, she tosses off Coward's one-liners with the aplomb of an old pro. She's simply hilarious, inhabiting Coward's world as if she were born there. Green, the other standout of the evening, gives a polished performance as the droll, intelligent Crestwell, the lower-class yin to the Countess' yang. The rest of the cast is appealing and surefooted. Kay Love is strong as the distraught Moxie, Gerry Love is a likable Nigel and Doug Erwin makes a sympathetic Don Lucas, another American movie star who has followed Miranda to England. Only Trevor Biship overdoes it, hitting all his comic lines with a sledgehammer and sometimes stepping on his colleagues' laughs.

The play itself is more leisurely than Coward's earlier comedies, and director Joan A. Dolan follows the playwright's lead, allowing her actors to ground the comedy in their characters rather than push the laughs and situations. It's a welcome respite from some productions that attack Coward with champagne glasses and frantically arched eyebrows and call it "style." The set, which looks nice enough to move into, is designed by Jason Weissenburger, and the stylish costumes are by Russell J. Bettlach.