note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
Although Noel Coward was gay, he was an intrepid chronicler and wry, satiric observer of the upper crust’s follies, their phoniness, aimlessness, and foolishness. His rapier wit and sharp tongue provided sublime fun, tinged with his mastery of language and striking observations that delighted the leisurely wealthy, who laughed at themselves with Coward.
In “Private Lives,” his three-act comedy of 1930‘s social manners, currently appearing through June 24 with the Huntington Theatre Company, audiences are enjoying the wacky interrelationships between a divorced couple and their new spouses.
They should, given that Director Maria Aitken starred in a 1980 revival of the play in London. She has cleverly calibrated every nuance, pause, action and reaction for laughs and shock factor.
“Private Lives’” appeal rests with Coward’s signature poking fun at the wealthy, enriched by his slick, wry humor and delightful wordplay. The play premiered in London in 1930, starring himself, his dear friends, Gertrude Lawrence and Laurence Olivier, and Adrianne Allen, then appeared on Broadway in 1931. It was revived on Broadway six times, and in London and other cities as well, coveting awards through the years. It also was aired on the radio and was a successful movie a few times.
All hell breaks loose when self-described, suave playboy, Elyot Chase, and his 23-year-old, needy bride, Sybil, and Elyot’s former wife, Amanda, and her new husband, Victor Prynne, discover on the first night of their honeymoons they’re one patio-suite away from each other in the Deauville Resort on the French Riviera.
Set designer Allen Moyer’s brilliant decision to incorporate two of painter Raoul Dufy’s Parisian and Riviera landscapes as scenic breaks is lovely. And his sets of the Riviera resort and upscale Parisian flat are resplendent. Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound design and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting dramatically capture the couples‘ interplay.
Divorced for five years, emptily filling their lives with travel and meaningless flings, Elyot and Amanda fought like cats and dogs during their marriage. They finally - and bitterly - decided to end their love-hate relationship.
When Amanda and Elyot discover each other next door, their old, romantic rumblings stir anew, so they ditch their new spouses without leaving any note, and escape to Amanda’s apartment in Paris.
As the two sophisticated, thoroughly glamorous divorcees reminisce and renew their red-hot relationship, they’re increasingly funnier and more explosive. Their ardor blows hot and cold, switching rapidly from adoring to angry, sentimental to battle works. James Waterston (son of famous actor Sam Waterston) and Bianca Amato as Amanda are fabulous throughout the play. Their affable chemistry is apparent as they hurl angry epithets at each other during brawls, hitting each other, throwing furniture, pillows, and breaking records over their heads, then cuddling, kissing and nuzzling each other. Garbed in costume designer Candice Donnelly’s sensuous silk pajamas or expensive finery, their tantrums yet civilized behavior is unpredictable.
Jeremy Webb as Amanda’s prissy, romantically insecure spouse, Victor Prynne, maintains his fussiness and fine manners throughout, until Elyot and Amanda’s shameless antics unravel his refined code of ethics. Victor and Sybil catch up with Amanda and Elyot in Amanda’s apartment, which is in shambles from their brawl the night before. Amanda’s maid Louise moves about the place, among the wreckage, offering breakfast, while the two mismatched couples confront each other. Fed up with them all, including sniffly, whiny, squeaky Sybil, ( Autumn Hurlburt), Victor blows his cool and explodes. Amanda and Elyot realize they can’t live without each other and that Victor and Sybil are better suited to each other, so they slip away again, leaving Sybil and Victor sparring together.
As a postscript, Sybil and Victor have devised a sensible divorce plan.
Fabulous Paula Plum is grossly underused here as Louise. She’s more of a momentary interruption or afterthought, whose brief appearance leaves us wanting more.
BOX INFO: Three-act, 110-minute comedy, written by Noel Coward, directed by Maria Aitken, appearing through June 24 with the Huntington Theatre Company, at Boston University Theatre, Avenue of the Arts, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Performances: Tuesday-Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8 p.m.; select Sundays, 7 p.m.; matinees, select Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $25; subscribers, BU community, $10 off; 35 years old-younger, with valid ID, $25; seniors, $5 discount; students, military, $15.Visit huntingtontheatre.org, the box offices at BU Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., or call 617-266-0800.