By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Apr 09, 2001 at 6:11 AM

The current Next Act Theatre production of "Fallen Angels" at the Off Broadway Theatre is a peerless example of how fine actors and a good director can make any production fly.

Clyde Fitch, a famous American playwright at the beginning of the last century who wrote "The Girl With Green Eyes," enjoyed almost as much fame as Noel Coward. His fame was short, and he has faded into a footnote. Yet this cast and director could take any one of his plays and by, being true to the text and utterly serious in their performances could make him very popular, at least for the run of the show.

Noel Coward began writing even as Clyde Fitch was fading and had a long run of hits and failures over his long career. Yet through it all, Coward was an utterly serious professional. Like Shakespeare, W.S. Gilbert, and George Bernard Shaw, Coward is a playwright who writes brilliant dialogue that simply plays itself in the hands of competent actors. Next Acts cast is clearly more than merely competent.

Carrie Hitchcock (Julia Sterroll) and Sarah Day (Jane Banbury) play two rather sexually repressed married women who long for a bit more passion and romance in their lives. These very talented and trained actresses roar, hoot, cackle and guffaw. They produce sounds that would intimidate the most rambunctious Rotweiller. I cannot recall ever seeing actresses so seemingly naked upon the stage. They plumb the apparent depths of their respective psyches and let it all hang out. These are bravura performances entirely at the service of the play.

This remarkable production is supported by Molly Rhode (Saunders), who very nearly steals almost every scene she is in. Mind you, she too completely respects the text and the intent of the play. In addition to her duties as the maid of all work, she plays more than one musical instrument, dances and earns frequent applause dressing the set between acts. She is clearly an actress to be watched.

The men could very nearly be considered an afterthought, but Norman Moses (Fred Sterrol), Bo Johnson (Willy Banbury) and Tony Clements (Maurice Duclos) are able to manage to stand up to the force of nature represented by the aforementioned females. Moses and Johnson play perfect straight men in the spirit of the play. Clements is given most favored status by being the missing figure talked about but not seen until the final act.

Having worked in the theatre from age five until his advanced age, Coward wrote so many plays, songs and reviews that he became a byword for the bright and seemingly brittle comedies of the Twenties and Thirties. Like Shakespeare, a "Coward" style of playing Coward developed. To C. Michael Wright, Sir Noel Coward is not a hallowed icon to be worshipped.

Coward’s "Fallen Angels" is a play, and it requires careful attention to the text and to presenting it on stage in a manner that will be true to the author and the audience. Instead of worshipping the play as a sacred cow, he and his company devour it like an especially delicious piece of prime beef.

He extracts marvelous performances from his cast and supplies them with every opportunity to shine. Without forcing or milking anything, Wright provides them with a wealth of business to help them create their characters. And just when the audience is about to lapse into sorrow that this delightful evening is over with the curtain call, Wright comes up with a brilliant device paying homage to Coward entirely fitting into the evening’s entertainment.

This production is worthy of praise in and of itself without any reference to Noel Coward, his "supposed" style, or his place in the history of theatre. It is a wonderful and wondrous evening and I urge you to see it while you can. It will be no more after April 29.

For tickets, call (414) 278-0765. There are four performances for those on limited budgets, so no one has an excuse for missing "Fallen Angels."