CAMBRIDGE -- There's a nifty little nightclub on Zero Arrow Street right now, serving drinks that are almost as bubbly as the atmosphere. And the floor show is terrific -- like something right out of Noel Coward.
Actually, it is right out of Noel Coward. It's a two-hour delight called "A Marvelous Party: The Noel Coward Celebration," and it's an elegant revue directed with charm and elan by Scott Edmiston for the American Repertory Theatre. The only sad news here is that it's not a permanent addition to local nightlife: The bubbles stop on July 29.
In the meantime, though, the "Club at Zero Arrow Theatre" is an ideal spot for a summer evening's pleasure. The ART has recycled Christine Jones's glittering cabaret set from last season's "Onion Cellar," but with Coward replacing the Dresden Dolls, the '30s atmosphere tilts away from Weimar decadence and toward Riviera chic. And it works.
Edmiston makes expert use of the set's varied locations, sending ART regulars Remo Airaldi, Thomas Derrah, Will LeBow, and Karen MacDonald (all displaying depth and range in this material, far from their usual fare) from main stage to mirrored alcove to bar to stairway as the moment requires. But, with the help of Karen Perlow's precise lighting, you always know exactly where to look next.
Thus we get a solo or two from the bar, some vaudeville flash in front of the mirrors, and some hilarious ensembles under the giant O of light bulbs above the main stage; Will McGarrahan sits onstage throughout, providing understated but excellent piano accompaniment. "I Went to a Marvelous Party" starts things off with just the right tone of amused ennui, a mood that recurs in "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" and turns deliciously vicious with "(Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage,) Mrs. Worthington."
But this melange of songs, dance numbers, and excerpts from Coward's diaries, poems, interviews, and memoirs doesn't stick with that one familiar note. Mark Anders, David Ira Goldstein, and Patricia Wilcox, who concocted the show for Chicago's Northlight Theatre , mix beloved standards and obscure treasures to create an evocative, multifaceted portrait of the brilliant, enigmatic man who created them all.
Thus MacDonald gets both a sidesplittingly absurd sendup of silly musicals in "The Coconut Girl," for which she becomes a dizzy showgirl performing all the roles from leading man to kickline, and a breathtakingly wistful classic, "Mad About the Boy." It's a measure of her expertise, and of the intelligence guiding the show, that each number is irresistible in its way.
For pure goofiness, though, it's tough to beat "Nina," which has Airaldi doing snippets of South American dance, complete with fruitbowl headgear. He gets another funny hat for "Has Anybody Seen Our Ship?," which pairs him with Derrah in a music-hall skit. And then there are the pith helmets for all three, who bob stiffly up and down as LeBow witheringly describes the "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" who go out in the noonday sun.
Entertaining as all this is, the performers look best in the second act, for which Hilary Hacker puts them in subdued but eclectic evening dress (much more flattering and appropriate than the first-act hodgepodge). Likewise, the show's most affecting numbers are the quieter ones -- not just "Mad About the Boy" but "If Love Were All" and a simply wonderful song I'd never heard, "Matelot."
Edmiston's program notes say Coward called this lover's lament for a sailor "one of the best songs I ever wrote," and Derrah's virtuosic solo performance brings out all its sophisticated simplicity. You know those fabulous parties where you dance and chatter and drink like mad, then settle down late at night for a real conversation with a dear friend? This is as good as that. And though it may be the cool allure of a wild time that got you dressed up and out the door, it's the warm stillness at the evening's heart that you'll never forget.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.