Terence Rattigan's adroitly constructed Separate Tables demands your full attention. The evening is comprised of two one-act dramas set two years apart in a quiet seaside hotel in southern England. But beneath the calm daily routine, passions are stirring. Illicit, secret, humiliating passions. How is a viewer to respond to characters that don't adhere to society's norms? Separate Tables is a plea for tolerance. Let he who is without guilt, Rattigan seems to be saying, sit alone at the dining room table furthest from the window.
If this appeal for understanding seems especially heartfelt, that's because both stories were drawn from Rattigan's very private life -- though neither play was really about what its plot suggests.
In Act 1 a once-beautiful model feels the need to renew a romance with the former husband who beat her up. This play was inspired by Rattigan's longtime relationship with a male lover (nicknamed "the Midget") who pummeled the playwright regularly -- yet Rattigan could not bring himself to leave. In Act 2 battle lines are drawn when the hotel residents learn that one of their own, a retired army officer, has been arrested for "nudging" a woman in a movie theater. In 1954 London audiences apparently understood that "the Major" was really guilty of having solicited homosexual favors; the nudging offense was a decoy to placate British censors.
Both acts share the same supporting cast of characters. Some of the actors in this ACT Inc. production are so in harmony with the script, it's as if they've been performing Rattigan all their lives. Among the residents, it's hard to imagine how John Harrington Smith's crusty wreck of a teacher or Teresa Doggett's sharp-tongued iconoclast could be improved upon. As the reptilian Mrs. Railton-Bell, who leads the movement to have the Major evicted, Nancy Lewis caresses malice as if it were mink. Her spellbinding work holds a viewer rapt. So too does the wise, sensitive portrayal by Liz Hopefl as the lonely hotel manager.
But these deft performances are the appetizers. Some of the entrees are not so filling. In Act 1, the demands of portraying a high-strung, potentially violent former Parliament minister are beyond Tom McAtee's reach. This is not a matter of interpretation or line readings; he's simply wrong for the role. There's such a vacuum at the center of this act, it's not fair to appraise Deborah Sharn's performance as the moth-like divorcee -- except to note that, although the evening dress to which Sharn has been assigned might have looked OK on Sandra Dee in The Reluctant Debutante, we can't help but wonder if a mature woman bent on seduction would be caught dead in this frock. Not bloody likely.
Act 2 has a different kind of problem. As Sibyl Railton-Bell, the dowdy daughter whose sheltered life is shattered by news of the Major's deviant behavior, Michelle Hand smartly elects to downplay her character's eccentricities. She succeeds in transforming Sibyl into a kind of British Laura Wingfield (to Nancy Lewis' grasping Amanda). And Chuck Lavazzi has some effective moments as the boorish Major. (Note how he almost loses his balance as he reads the newspaper account of his arrest.) But despite the fact that this is by far the better written and more affecting of the two acts, both actors might feel freer to explore the script's subtext if they could be assured that the audience knew the real story they were telling. As directed by Lynn Rathbone, the play is performed very much on the lines rather than between them, with the result that some of the dialogue seems far too emotional for the story that's being told.
Nor does it help that the production is so cavalier about where scenes are to be played. Rattigan intended for Act 1 to climax with the hotel guests having breakfast at their separate tables in the dining room. In order to omit a scene change, that scene now occurs in the lounge. One can almost hear the ACT Inc. staffers justifying this cop-out: "After all, they're not eating much." But there's no formality or rigidity in a lounge. Rattigan titled his play Separate Tables, not Separate Sofas. ACT, Inc. always deserves kudos for staging rarely seen scripts. But it wouldn't hurt to stage them as written.