Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence were the Will and Grace of the London stage in the ’20s and ’30s, but you wouldn’t know it from Sheridan Morley’s Noel and Gertie. The two, who met when both were child actors and remained close friends until Lawrence’s death in 1952, starred together in some of Coward’s greatest successes—Private Lives, Tonight at 8:30, and Blithe Spirit—and were naturals at delivering Coward’s brittle, rapid-fire dialogue, prompting one critic to say of Lawrence, “She talks like a typewriter.” But Noel and Gertie shows little of their polish, awkwardly combining scenes from Coward’s plays, snippets of biography, and musical numbers, probably doing justice only to the last. MetroStage’s Carl Randolf (Coward) and Tracy McMullan (Lawrence), accompanied by musical director Alfredo Pulupa, acquit themselves quite nicely as singers, though the songs, apart from “I’ll See You Again” and the comic admonishment against putting untalented children on the stage, “Mrs. Worthington,” are unmemorable out of context. Numbers accompanied by Stefan Sittig’s lively choreography, reminiscent of Hermes Pan’s, are the most successful. The scenes from Coward’s plays, often having to do with couples who have separated despite their love for one another, begin to sound the same, all full of “Darling, you look beautiful”s and “I love you, but we mustn’t” moments. The story of Coward and Lawrence’s 40-year friendship is Noel and Gertie’s most intriguing aspect—and the one that is given shortest shrift. Morley has only the barest bones of the relationship—child acting, co-starring, supportive telegrams back and forth—so the core of their friendship never comes to life. Coward’s pithy epigrams, “Can’t write biography of Sarah Bernhardt for Gertie—busy writing biography of St. Theresa for Mae West,” for example, are countered, typically, by Lawrence smiling enigmatically down at Coward from a balcony of Tracie Duncan’s beautiful purple and mauve art-deco set, keeping the nature of their bond a frustrating mystery. Coward refers only once to his homosexuality—and never to how it affected his life or career or his feelings for Lawrence. Lawrence, for her part, was a major star on Broadway for 20 years, married, had a child, and is rumored to have had an affair with Daphne du Maurier, yet as far as Noel and Gertie can tell us, she was as arch and superficial as her Amanda character in Private Lives.—Janet Hopf

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