When you think of Noel Coward’s strengths as a playwright, you think of witty dialogue with sophisticated zingers cutting into, but not completely through, a veil of British reserve and class consciousness.

But the times were changing as Coward approached the end of his career. Written amid the social upheavals of the 1960s, the latest Portland Stage offering suggests some straining by the author against the old ties holding mainstream society and its chroniclers within bounds.

“A Song at Twilight” is masterfully written, in an old-school, classic sort of way, and very funny at times. It also conveys a certain unease that was emergent in the theatrical world of the time.

The play concerns Sir Hugo, a wealthy and successful older writer who guards his vanity and reputation with a sharp tongue and unsparing pen from a private suite in a luxury Swiss hotel. 

When ex-flame Carlotta appears with a handful of potentially embarrassing love letters and a threat to make them public, the limits of Hugo’s tight control over his image and legacy are tested.

Theater veteran Edmond Genest has the lead role and was perfectly believable as the man whose “indestructible elegance” is put in the service of a “carefully sculptured reputation.” His character’s arrogance, anger and exasperation were forcefully portrayed on opening night, as was his ultimate vulnerability.

Carol Halstead was strong in the role of the wronged lover hoping to get Hugo to admit to his years of “cruelty” and “cowardice.”

She slinks around her host, enjoying his slow deflation as she parries his increasingly desperate attempts at getting the dangerous letters out of her possession.

Maureen Butler, as Hugo’s current spouse, deftly turned her character’s initial rather minor, but nicely comic, role in the scenario into an applause-gathering monologue that saves the day by letting the others see a way out of their dilemma.

All three of the main players were successful at portraying the difficult processes of unmasking that take place in the play.

Director Paul Mullins appears to have cut some dialogue but has added three Coward songs performed by Harrison M. Beck, who plays the proud but discreet waiter Felix.

It’s a nice touch that adds lyrical depth to a play full of characters struggling to find safe emotional footing as the hour grows late.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.