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The Better Half

"Thanks to the playwright's seamless blend of the urbane and the dangerous; Eddie Muller's tight, perfectly paced direction; and nuanced performances by Alice Louise and Jonathan Ingbretson in the psychologically challenging roles of Alice and David, The Better Half is anything but a lightweight domestic farce. Though delightfully old-fashioned, the work also feels quite contemporary for its unconventional views on marital relationships. No blood gets spilled onstage, but intermittent allusions to a sensational news story about a man who beats up his wife for being unfaithful hints at the violent impulses at work at the heart of the play."
—Chloe Veltman, SF Weekly

@ the Hypnodrome
575 Tenth Street
San Francisco, CA

In an amazing coup for Bay Area theatre, a “lost” one-act play by the legendary Noel Coward had its U.S. premiere in San Francisco, presented on March 21 through May 31, 2011, at Thrillpeddlers’ Hypnodrome in San Francisco.

The Better Half, scathingly funny and bitter, skewers the sexual mores of the British upper crust. The play was recently unearthed—after 85 years in limbo—by a pair of Welsh academics. Coward wrote it in 1921, at the age of 22, when he was still several years away from breaking through as the most popular playwright in the English language. “His caustic wit was already fully in evidence,” said University of Glamorgan professor Dr. Richard Hand, who discovered the original manuscript (with his colleague, Michael Wilson) deep in the files of the Lord Chamberlain at the British Library.

“Coward wrote it for London’s Grand Guignol Company,” Hand explained, “which was the British version of France’s notorious Théâtre du Grand Guignol, which specialized in scandalous comedies and terror plays. It was performed in May 1922, but never again. And it never has been published in any form.”

It is fitting that the American premiere of The Better Half is being staged by Thrillpeddlers, a San Francisco theatrical institution dedicated to reviving the traditions of Grand Guignol. (The troupe was last year’s “Readers’ Choice” for best local theater company in the SF Weekly’s Best of San Francisco balloting, and it figures prominently in the special features of the new Sweeney Todd DVD to be released on April 1, 2008.)

Dr. Hand will be in attendance at the March 21 and 22 shows to discuss the discovery of the Coward play as well as his new book, London’s Grand Guignol and the Theatre of Horror.

Said Thrillpeddlers cofounder and artistic director Russell Blackwood: “It’s incredibly exciting, and due largely to our longstanding relationship with Richard Hand and Michael Wilson, that the Coward estate granted us the rights to stage the American premiere. And what’s even better is that the play is really good! According to Richard, the manuscript shows where the British censors struggled with cutting Coward’s more controversial innuendoes. But in the end it was so well written, and so funny, that they left it alone.”

The play is an unconventional comedy of manners depicting the sexual intrigues of an unhappily married couple, Alice and David, and the suggestion of David’s possible dalliance with Alice’s best friend, Marion. Alice Louise (Alice), Jonathan Ingbretson (David) and Alison Sacha Ross (Marion) portray the well-heeled but duplicitous troika.

“Given that it was written in 1921, it’s still remarkably relevant to a contemporary audience,” said San Francisco writer-director and “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller, who is directing the production. “This isn’t something the young Noel Coward hid away in a drawer. It’s a wickedly structured and snarling piece of work. I’m really excited to be resurrecting it. It’s an honor, and the cast is absolutely stellar.”