Compared with his stylishly arch comedies, Noel Coward’s “This Happy Breed, ” a somber drama about a middle-class family making do in a London suburb, feels like the work of an entirely different playwright—someone, actually, who would seem to have much in common with “Vera Drake” film director Mike Leigh. The intricacies of postwar British life—and all the cramped details of a middle-class home—are the focus of both the Coward play (post-World War I) and the Leigh film (post-World War II). But whereas “Vera Drake” is atmospheric—the film’s algae-green-grayness nearly swallows you whole—TimeLine Theatre’s well-acted, though awkwardly staged, revival of “This Happy Breed” holds you at a distance. That may have something to do with Tom Burch’s in-the-round scenic design that approximates (intentionally or not) the feeling that you are spying on this family through a window in their home. No matter where you sit, something in that house is blocking your view—be it the furniture, the fireplace, a lamp or a framed photograph. This is director Nick Bowling’s one misstep; with a cast like this one, nothing should obscure the performances. Particularly that of Dana Black (with her killer mocha-chocolate voice) as Queenie, the social-climbing daughter whose flimsy hauteur is both relatable and just plain old sad. Kathleen Ruhl makes the most of her small part as the immovable crank of a grandmother. And the button-downed parental tag team of Terry Hamilton and Isabel Liss form the bedrock of this production—especially Hamilton who fully embodies the kind of friendly chap who is happiest when he comes home tipsy one night with his best pal and they make themselves a snack of biscuits and fish paste. Now that’s England. (Nina Metz)
“This Happy Breed” plays at TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington, (773)281-8463, through December 19.