Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Private Lives"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


by Noel Coward
directed by Scott Edmiston

Sybil Chase … Mandy Fox
Elyot Chase … Michael Hammond
Victor Prynne … Barlow Adamson
Amanda Prynne … Paula Plum
Louise … Amy B. Corral

Scott Edmiston is fast becoming Boston’s most stylish director: last year, his production of BETRAYAL (Nora Theatre Company) captured the snowy hush in Harold Pinter’s chamber music, and his constant oiling of Noel Coward’s HAY FEVER (Boston University Theatre) kept the play’s creaking down to a minimum; even his staging of JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS (Gloucester Stage Company) brought forth a heaping basket of jewels --- he can make competent actors look good (the B. U. students in HAY FEVER) and good ones, even better (Anne Gottlieb in BETRAYAL; Leigh Barrett in BREL). Style seems to be Mr. Edmiston’s creed, and from what I’ve seen thus far it is his weakness as well as his strength: his productions sparkle and they run like clockwork; I enjoy them but feel there is little going on beneath their polished surfaces. Mr. Edmiston’s Lyric Stage production of Mr. Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES may be his best work yet --- I bubbled at Elyot and Amanda, divorced yet falling madly in love all over again while honeymooning with Sybil and Victor, their latest spouses --- but, like its predecessors, this production lacks a heart. Some may quibble, Sybil, that “heart” was the farthest thing from Sir Noel’s clever mind, but PRIVATE LIVES’ banked fires should ignite amidst Elyot and Amanda’s chatter of Taj Mahals and biscuit boxes where their emotions, however selfish and fleeting they may be, ring warm and true and catapults them into running off to Paris. That oh-so-British warmth reads on the page and can be heard in Mr. Coward and Gertrude Lawrence’s famous recording of the scene (a love duet between two members of Generation Lost); Mr. Edmiston, however, keeps things bright, cool and at a whip-crack pace and the moment goes for nothing; thus lacking an emotional bedrock, his Act Two goes round and round with Elyot and Amanda’s near-eternal bouts of kiss-and-make-up when it should lead up (or down) to a comic orgasm of domestic violence (think of two bored children on a rainy afternoon, straining to remain polite to one another; that afternoon is bound to end in tears); the knock-down fight, when it finally comes, is safe and disappointing. Still, when Elyot & Amanda & Sybil & Victor are going at it hammer and tong in Acts One and Three, Mr. Edmiston’s production is delightful --- yes, the Lyric has a hit! --- and makes me think twice when, last September, I wrote that PRIVATE LIVES’ fizz had gone flat; clearly, it hasn’t --- on the night I attended, there was much happy barking coming from the darkened auditorium.

No surprises with Mr. Edmiston’s battling lovers --- I last saw Paula Plum, treasured comedienne, as his Judith in HAY FEVER (should she take on Elvira in BLITHE SPIRIT between now and May, she will have played all three of Mr. Coward’s leading female roles in one year) and I first saw Michael Hammond do his cold cerebral thing as the philosopher Wittgenstein in David Egan’s THE FLY-BOTTLE (Shakespeare & Company); I had an inkling what to expect and was not disappointed --- though they, too, remain on the surface, Ms. Plum and Mr. Hammond click very nicely: Ms. Plum keeps her Maggie Smith-isms to a minimum and Mr. Hammond is an amusing iceman (what would we see should he ever thaw?); pity their director hasn’t given them some real knockabout for they move well in and out of each other’s arms and are quite funny in Act Two’s circling, glaring silences.

The production’s true fascination lies in Mr. Edmiston’s Sybil and Victor who are wonderfully personified by Mandy Fox in a bright Boston debut and Barlow Adamson who, like his contemporary Birgit Huppuch, is evolving into a solid character actor. There is no aesthetic reason for these abandoned spouses to be cast as two ninnies, though they often are --- Sybil and Victor must be attractive enough to have drawn the vain Elyot and Amanda to them in the first place and they must represent the stability that the lovers have looked for and cannot find in each other; paradoxically, that same stability makes E & A realize that marriage to S & V is a Ghastly Mistake. Ms. Fox and Mr. Adamson are certainly attractive, with the former resembling pink sugar sprinkled on fresh cream and the latter a butch manikin come to life, and they are maddeningly nice and commonsensical; they are also quite British in their decorum and, to quote once again from E. M. Forster, their undeveloped hearts --- under stress, Ms. Fox’s Sybil becomes a winking, blinking doll with an increasingly curdled smile and Mr. Adamson’s Victor becomes so rigid you could use him as a yardstick (special thanks to Mr. Edmiston for moving Mr. Adamson up the social ladder, role-wise: last year, he played a psychotic redneck and a 19th century mug of a cop; here, Mr. Adamson’s strapping physique and shy demeanor make him the perfect drawing room stooge; he is even touching when he puts up his dukes to Elyot: this Victor clearly lacks a combative streak). In an inspired piece of off-beat casting, Amy B. Corral plays Louise (the sneezing French maid with the few lines) as a gamine that the proverbial cat dragged in, thought about, and dragged back out again (Sally Bowles, anyone?).

Mr. Edmiston changes the comedy’s ending --- Victor shaking Sybil “like a rat” while Elyot and Amanda elope, once again --- with one small gesture that makes perfectly brilliant sense in context and should leave both the quartet and the audience quite happy. Thank you, Mr. Edmiston and to your sterling cast for a marvelous night in the theatre.

"Private Lives" (2-31 January)
140 Clarendon Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 437-7172

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