Like the character Amanda Prynne’s (Deborah Hazlett) heart, Private Lives is jagged with sophistication. Noel Coward’s oft-produced 1930 play—which he starred in with his great friend and co-conspirator Gertrude Lawrence—combines Brit wit, class and style in its wicked laceration of upper-class manners and unconventional mores.
Everyman Theatre’s sparkling production, directed by Carl Schurr, captures the dry-gin fizz of Mr. Coward’s dialogue and conjures a bygone world of elegance, bespoke wealth and cruelties ladled on by the caviar spoonful. Miss Hazlett and Bruce Randolph Nelson, playing Amanda’s ex-husband and current crush Elyot Chase, handle the demands of Mr. Coward’s antic repartee with such speed and lightness you’d swear they were to a manor born.
They deliver the barbed bon mots in an arch, supremely confident way as if the blood running through their veins is Wedgwood blue. Their Amanda and Elyot are marvelous creatures—monsters, really, but entertaining and wicked enough that you indulge their smoking, their soft spot for brandy, even their blithe adultery.
Adding to their charm is the fact the actors look like they were curated for a photospread by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, clad in breathtaking bias-cut silk gowns and glove-fit suits by costume designer David Burdick and flitting about in Daniel Ettinger’s impeccable period sets—his peacock-hued Empire and deco décor for Amanda’s Paris apartment is a Jazz Age fantasy.
Private Lives depicts the public indiscretions of Amanda and Elyot, two people who can’t stand to be apart—or together. The play begins on a sweeping balcony in Deauville, France, as twin honeymoons are about to unfold. Having divorced five years ago, Amanda and Elyot have sought matrimony with new spouses. Elyot has just tied the knot to Sibyl (Erin Lindsay Krom), a dewy-eyed and seemingly pliant young lady, and Amanda is wed to Victor (Peter Wray), full of gentlemanly bravado.
When the former flames stumble upon one another on the shared balcony—as Mr. Coward’s composition for the play, the wistful waltz “Some Day I’ll Find You”, plays softly in the background—it is immediately apparent that a divorce decree did nothing to dampen their ardor. Before the lemon peels in their cocktails have a chance to wilt, Amanda and Elyot cast off their newlyweds and run off to Paris together.
This time, they pledge, it will be different. No more knockdown, drag out fights, no more endless bickering and lacerating one-upmanship. They even devise a code word, “Sollocks,” to allow themselves a grown up timeout. And, for awhile, in the deliriously merry second act, it seems to be working.
However, the question mark in Mr. Coward’s play is whether Amanda and Elyot can embrace their true selves—the brittle, contentious, amoral people they really are. For all their perfect posture and drop-dead chic, Amanda and Elyot are meticulous exemplars of bad behavior.
And you love them all the more for their willingness to go at it hammer and tongs. An example of the extent of their charm is that you find yourself laughing at such lines as “some women should be struck regularly, like gongs” and other mentions of spousal abuse, as well as the two smacking and slapping each other around like soignée versions of the Three Stooges.
Mr. Coward’s writing is so dazzling and the ensemble work so seamless you don’t even particularly feel sorry for the thrown-over spouses, thanks to Miss Krom giving both petulance and edge to Sybil and Mr. Wray playing the high-born gasbag to the hilt.
The flippancy and fast pace of Everyman’s Private Lives also carries with it a bracing nostalgia for the 1930s, a wished-for time when wordplay ached with wit and meaning and conversation was 14-karat.
Private Lives runs thru through Dec. 11, 2011 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 Charles St., Baltimore, MD.
by Noel Coward
Directed by Carl Schurr
Produced by Everyman Theatre
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: Approximately two hours, with two 10-minute intermissions