By Karen Isaacs
Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak has directed a stylish and fast-paced production of Nöel Coward’s classic comedy Private Lives. I, for one, truly enjoyed it. Yet I also had a quibble or two.
Private Lives was written for Coward and his good friend Gertrude Lawrence, though a lesser known fact is that Laurence Olivier played the stodgy Victor. So the play reflects the Coward style — fast paced, clipped dialogue, witty epigrams and for the time, a shocking lack of acceptance of social standards. It is a play that you cannot imagine being done in a Southern drawl.
The play opens on a hotel on the sea in France. Elyot and Sybil have just arrived for their honeymoon. But even in this glorious setting, you sense all is not necessarily blissful. Sybil is obsessed with Elyot’s first wife — Amanda and their honeymoon, despite the couple having been divorced five years. Plus, Sybil just does not seem to be suited to the more sophisticated Elyot.
As they go into their room to dress dinner, on the adjoining balcony another couple has just arrived for their honeymoon. By strange coincidence it is Amanda (Elyot’s ex) and her new husband Victor. Again — the couple just does seem to “fit” with each other.
It is clear that both Elyot and Amanda have settled for “safe” and perhaps boring spouses after what we learn was a volatile relationship.
As you might guess, soon it is Elyot and Amanda on the balconies — discovering to their consternations each other. Then, each tries to persuade the respective new spouse to leave immediately. Neither will, Victor and Sybil view the requests as ludicrous and spats ensue.
Traditionally, act one ends with Elyot and Amanda, having rediscovered their passion for each other, abandoning their honeymoons to go to Paris together.
Act two takes place in Amanda’s Paris apartment a few days later. It has been blissful but some signs of the old volatility is beginning to creep into the relationship. Squabbling — fueled in part by alcohol — is increasing. In fact, the two end up in physical violence towards each other — which may horrify a society sensitized to the evils of domestic violence. It is into this scene that Sybil and Victor arrive having paired up to locate their errant spouses.
The third act is the next day, as the four try to sort themselves out. Each of the new spouses defends his/her errant spouse which soon descends into conflict between the two.
The ending? If you don’t know this play, I won’t spoil it for you.
While this is a comedy — in some respects there are hints that perhaps Albee used in his seminal Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?– this is not say, that the play is heavy. Some would accuse it of being too light and the characters shallow society types. But Coward was a discerning and intelligent commentator on modern society and relationships.
Elyot and Amanda are seemingly rudderless with no purpose in life except to enjoy themselves and with the funds to do just that. But that type of life soon leads to boredom. If you look below the surface, Elyot and Amanda are not only self-absorbed and self-entitled, but putting on a “show” that they are actually living.
Remember, Coward was brought up in genteel poverty; he always felt somewhat outside the “smart set” that lionized him.
Sybil and Victor represent the more conventional and perhaps more truly shallow upper classes. Their lives are equally vapid but they are too obtuse to recognize it and therefore less unhappy.
Overall this is an excellent production starting with the art deco set by Alexander Dodge. I defy anyone not to want to have or at least spend a few days in such places. The costumes by Joshua Pearson also both capture the period and stress the differences between Elyot and Amanda and Victor and Sybil. Add in excellent lighting by York Kennedy and sound design by Michael Miceli.
Special recognition must be given to the dialect coach Gillian Lane-Plescia who coached the performers in very authentic accents while still letting them be understandable to American audiences. This is difficult with the speed of delivery of the dialogue.
One of Tresnjak’s decisions was to remove both of the intermissions. The play now runs approximately 95 minutes. Personally, I think one intermission would have been useful to allow the audience to digest what has come before. Another decision which I question is the staging of the final confrontation between Sybil and Victor. I don’t want to give too much away and I understand the parallels he wanted to draw but I wonder whether it was necessary.
That leads us to the cast. Too often, the actors in this play are established stars in their 40s; in the script Elyot is the oldest but his only mid-thirties. Tresnjak has cast younger performers.
Ken Barrett as Elyot seems most at home with the ’30s sophisticated style and dialogue. Rachel Pickup is very good as Amanda while Jenni Barber emphasis the rather immature and annoying aspects of Sybil. Henry Clarke as Victor seems one-dimensional.
Private Lives is most enjoyed by those who want stylish, seemingly superficial comedy yet are willing to recognize the hidden depths.
Private Lives is at Hartford Stage through Feb. 8. For tickets contact www.hartfordstage.org.