PRIVATE LIVES is an example of playwright Noël Coward at the height of his considerable gifts. Nicknamed ‘the Master,’ from the 1920s to the 40’s, he was Great Britain’s chief exponent of the intimate comedy where people utter terribly witty things and lead exceedingly worldly lives. Coward’s 1930 hit comedy – originally starring the author with the legendary Gertrude Lawrence - personifies upper class panache, flippant dialogue, and vivid characters.
Wayside Theatre, in Middletown, Virginia, recently opened their new production of PRIVATE LIVES.
If you have never encountered Coward’s showcase of high style and clever repartee, here’s the brief rundown: Elyot and his young bride Sybil are honeymooning in an elegant French hotel with an ocean view. Elyot is on his second marriage; it is Sybil’s first. As fate would have it, the room next door is occupied by newlyweds Victor and Amanda. Guess who was Elyot’s first wife?
Once the former couple is reunited on the moonlit balcony, passions reignite and Elyot runs off with Amanda to a Parisian hideaway. Their confused spouses are left behind, staring at the ocean. Once Amanda and Elyot arrive in Paris, along with the joys of romance, they rediscover the seeds of their marital destruction – verdant jealousy, bouts of scathing insults and turning bric-a-brac into weapons. Victor and Sybil enter just in time to view the carnage and they all attempt to sort out their relationships.
PRIVATE LIVES is quintessential Coward. Even though Wayside’s effort has the talent to amuse, the rendering stops short of being outright hilarious. I grinned, I chuckled a bit, and I even let out an occasional chortle. I just couldn’t put my finger on why I was not letting go with peals of laughter.
To credit director Warner Crocker, the proper style was in evidence, and the scenes zipped along at a crackling pace. The language was sharp and the British accents were properly posh, but the performance as a whole seemed like measured mirth.
Wayside’s production is framed with a simple and elegant Art Deco look, courtesy of Zackary Fullencamp’s technical expertise and clever set design. Caleb Blackwell’s costumes evoke the era of white dinner jackets, long gowns and silk pajamas. The atmospheric background music from sound designer Steve Przybylski enhances the onstage action.
The production is not lacking stylized acting and onstage chemistry, thanks to leading players Peter Boyer and Thomasin Savaiano, as Elyot and Amanda. Boyer and Savaiano are well matched and handle the quip-filled dialogue and roller coaster relationship with ease.
As Amanda’s new husband, Kevin Grubb was perfect as the staid and proudly normal Victor. The audience can almost root for Victor, and Grubb makes him a delightful staunch.
Sybil, Elyot’s bride, begins as a charming ingénue, all kisses and newlywed bliss. After she feels threatened by Amanda, Sybil whines, turns on the tears and is a most unlikeable sort. Theresa McGuirk deserves credit for trying to make the difficult role work in her favor.
The acting company – which also includes Leslie Putnam as the French maid – makes for a strong ensemble. But I felt the actors almost overplayed at times, attempting to maintain the high style but losing the nuances of a light, period comedy.
Nothing, however, diminishes the joy of hearing Noël Coward’s verbal virtuosity. We are lucky Coward’s bon mots live on, thanks to BLITHE SPIRIT, HAY FEVER, PRESENT LAUGHTER, and PRIVATE LIVES, to name only handful of the more than 50 plays, musicals and films he penned. (Not to mention more than 300 songs!)
Coward’s confidence was also apparent summing up his own gifts: “I’m an enormously talented man, and there’s no use pretending that I’m not.” He certainly was.
Noël Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES, through August 11, 2012. Wayside Theatre, 7853 Main Street, Middletown, VA 22645. Tickets range from $23-$30. Box office: 540.869.1776. Questions? firstname.lastname@example.org