By Noel Coward
Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Janice Cane
Washington Shakespeare Company is serving up a bite of fun almost as delectable as the fare offered just beyond the stage at 1409 Playbill Café. Almost. A day later, I’m still salivating over the meal I enjoyed before seeing Noël Coward’s Private Lives, but the play itself is quickly becoming a memory.
Wait. That’s not as harsh as it sounds. There are some plays you linger over-they probe your conscience and leave you pondering their themes for days. And there are other plays intended for quick consumption-they make you laugh and provide a couple hours of pleasant entertainment. Private Lives is a perfect example of the latter.
Two pairs of newlyweds quickly discover that “honeymooning is a very overrated experience,” even in France-and not because the couples hardly know each other. Turns out Elyot, now married to the younger Sybil, has booked a room next to his ex-wife Amanda, now married to the younger Victor. Elyot and Amanda freely admit to Sybil and Victor that they once loved each other, but that love turned to loathing five years ago…until they meet again, which of course they do. First, each tries to convince the younger, oblivious spouses to cut their honeymoon short. Then, Elyot and Amanda realize they still love to hate each other. With a codeword at hand to quell future arguments, the two run off to Amanda’s flat in Paris to revive their passionate relationship.
Private Lives is so entertaining because of the main course. As Elyot and Amanda, Bruce Alan Rauscher and Cam Magee have amazing, very believable chemistry from the second they discover each other’s unfortunate presence. As Amanda puts it, they are a nasty acid bubbling in a matrimonial bottle.
Coward actually starred as Elyot in the first production of Private Lives, while Amanda has been portrayed by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins. Rauscher and Magee are admirable substitutes because they are fun to watch. His bemused exasperation and her airy acceptance of even the most awkward situations make snappy dialogue even funnier. Together, their sardonic wit is spot on. The only thing that really needs improvement, ironically, is their French kissing. Watching them abuse each other is far more enjoyable, and actually quite impressive.
Rauscher and Magee are veterans of the WSC stage (they were husband and wife in Equus), but their counterparts are new, and it shows in their rather bland performances. Megan Dominy (Sybil) and Jeremy Lister (Victor) don’t really shine until the play’s end, which is very funny despite being completely predictable from the start. But both spurned spouses are somewhat dim in the first act, compared to the bright wattage of Rauscher and Magee. Dominy does know how to use tears to elicit laughter; her pathetic hysterics are her high point.
Coward wrote Private Lives in 1930, but the play doesn’t feel dated at all. It’s about love and jealousy and attraction. Those things never go out of style, and director H. Lee Gable wisely focused on those elements rather than the period aspects of the play. But thank goodness he didn’t update Private Lives, or else we would have been deprived of Lynly Saunders’ fabulous costumes. Amanda and Sybil traipse about in such glamorous outfits, lush with accessories, that I wish 1930s fashion hadn’t gone out of style.
Coward was more than a playwright; he also composed music. For Private Lives, he wrote the song “Someday I’ll Find You,” which Barbara Papendorp weaves in and out of scenes. She is vivid even behind a sheer black curtain, but she steps beyond it to amuse the audience as the maid Louise.
That black curtain is a clever part of Richard Montgomery’s superb set design. The Paris flat of the second and third acts is particularly inviting, with a beautiful loveseat resting on a zebra print rug. Very Amanda. And very detailed. The painting on the wall even has a mounted lamp to illuminate it. And the Eiffel Tower just beyond the “window” is a nice touch. It’s almost enough to make you forget the tiny, cramped quarters audience members must share.
Tight seating aside, Private Lives is a pleasant way to spend an evening, especially if you dine at the Playbill Café first, and especially if you go with someone you love…or hate to love…or love to hate.
(Running time: about two hours and fifteen minutes with 2 intermissions) Playing through September 23 at 1409 Playbill Café, 1409 14th Street N.W., Washington, DC 20005. Performances are 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Barbara Papendorp will perform the “Coward Cabaret,” an evening of songs by Coward, on August 24, 25, and 26 at 9 p.m. Additional performances of Private Lives will be offered August 27 and 28 at 8 p.m. Ticket prices range from $25 to $35. Saturday matinees are pay-what-you-can. Buy tickets online.