Two Hundred Forty Nine

In a sumptuous hotel suite in Switzerland, aging novelist and playwright Sir Hugo Latymer (Martin Wilson) nervously awaits the arrival of a very old flame, actress Carlotta Gray (Lorraine James), with whom he had rancorously split decades before and not met since. Apprehensive and vulnerable in his fading health, he bullies his wife and business manager of 20 years, Hilde (Kelley Hirst), a German refugee, who reassures him as she sets out for dinner with a longtime lesbian friend.

In 1965, when Noël Coward wrote A Song at Twilight for the London stage, the words “out” and “closeted” did not mean what they do today. How could they? Homosexual sex was still a criminal offense under English law, and being openly gay could — and did — land people in jail. But the ethical and emotional ramifications of a life lived in secret, especially for a writer’s life, are at the heart of this very late work by a playwright whose homosexuality was well-known but never acknowledged.

Ostensibly inspired by the memoirs of W. Somerset Maugham, who omitted any mention of his 30-year liaison with his secretary, Gerald Haxton, and by an event recounted in a biography of the writer and caricaturist Max Beerbohm, “A Song at Twilight” seems nonetheless utterly autobiographical — and it must have seemed even more so to its original audiences, watching the aging, ailing, closeted author play an aging, ailing, closeted author.

Mr. Coward called it his most serious play, and it certainly cuts through the familiar, waggish Coward persona to reveal a semblance of real heartbreak underneath.


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