Everyone knows a couple like these two. They’re passionate and interesting, worldly and deeply into one another. They’re the couple that causes people to remark “I just love the two of them together!”
Then one day, you hear they’ve divorced. And it all makes a lot of sense.
So it is for Amanda and Elyot (Bianca Amato and James Waterston, respectively) in Noël Coward’s Private Lives, currently underway at Shakespeare Theater Company.
Set in the 1930’s, the play opens on a hotel room balcony belonging to Elyot and Sybil, two newlyweds enjoying a honeymoon in Northern France. Sybil is young, giddy and in love, but the two start in on with a small tiff over a touchy subject – is Elyot still in love with Amanda, the woman he divorced long ago?
Elyot deftly dodges and denies, all the while affirming his love for Sybil. As the two prepare to go off for dinner, the doors to the next balcony over open to reveal two other honeymooning newlyweds in the adjoining rooming– Victor (Jeremy Webb), an aging aristocrat, and Amanda, Elyot’s ex-wife. Heaven save them.
It quickly becomes clear that although Elyot and Amanda have diverged from one another, they have chosen similar paths for themselves. Amanda and Victor have an argument similar to that of Elyot and Sybil, with Victor exhibiting a strong jealousy and insecurity over Amanda’s ex-husband. Amanda makes all the same attempts to reassure him that Elyot made for his new wife, but it’s obvious that she – like Elyot – has married someone she finds largely boring and unappealing.
Elyot and Amanda each discover the other’s presence and make fitful pleas to their spouses to leave the honeymoon for a new location. But Sybil and Victor are uninterested in upending the honeymoon on a whim, and Amanda and Elyot are left alone on the balcony for an awkward reunion as their spouses leave to let off some steam.
What begins as an odd encounter quickly becomes a rekindling of the feeling between Amanda and Elyot, and at that point we’re off to the races.
And it’s a very, very good time.
The production is classy and beautiful, with fitting costumes and an opening scene that bursts out at the audience from the first few moments of the play. Shakespeare Theater Company never skimps on the design, and Private Lives is no exception.
But it’s the performances themselves that make the production, and Private Lives offers some of the very best. Autumn Hurlbert’s Sybil is demure at first, but her spine stiffens when her new husband makes his escape for Paris. Likewise Jeremy Webb’s Victor is appropriately straight-laced but also hyper-masculine, always itching for a fight but never doing quite enough to rouse Amanda’s interest.
James Waterston offers an Elyot that is unsettling and hard to pin down. Sometimes playful and boyish, sometimes prone to sulking and violent outbursts, he’s the slightly dangerous, all-too-interesting lover who would, frankly, make you nervous if he was dating one of your friends or loved ones. It’s a job well done on Waterston’s part for keeping the audience on its toes.
Perhaps the biggest performance of all comes from Bianca Amato as Amanda. Amato toggles deftly between the many faces of Amanda – from cutesy to amorous to stately to holy terror. Amato is as comfortable coolly smoking a cigarette as she is throwing and all-out temper tantrum. And she has no trouble looking utterly dangerous herself when the time is right.
So a job well done all around.
What’s left is a play that is as witty and cutting as you would expect from Noël Coward. There are touching moments, big laughs, and just enough commentary on life and love to make you think, without being preachy or over the top.
Closes July 13, 2014
Shakespeare Theatre Company
in the Lansburgh Theatre
450 7th Street NW
2 hours, 30 minutes, 2 intermissions
Tickets: $20 – $100
Tuesdays thru Sundays
If anything, Private Lives’ three acts mimic the crests and troughs of a love affair beautifully. At one end of the spectrum there’s romance and passionate embraces – basically, the part we all like to remember.
But at the other end, of course, there are moments of boredom, insecurity and uncertainness, followed by an explosion of emotion and an unfortunate falling out.
That would be the part we’d all rather forget.
But for all of its emotional range, Private Lives is still measured and dignified. Sure, there are awkward situations, but they’re never uncomfortable to watch. And while Sybil and Victor might be curious
targets for our sympathies, you’ll find yourself cheering for the plays’ adulterers anyhow, rather than waiting and hoping for an eventual comeuppance. That’s a tough balance to strike, but they do it well.
Private Lives offers lots of laughs and some sincerely touching moments, so get to it! Bring someone you love, or maybe someone you used to love. In fact, for the full experience, bring a former spouse if you have one and see where things lead.
Actually, no – don’t do that. But do go see Private Lives. It’s a love affair you’ll want to remember.
Private Lives by Noel Coward . Directed by Maria Aitken . Featuring Bianca Amato, James Waterston, Autumn Hurlbert, Jane Ridley and Jeremy Webb . Set design: Allen Moyer . Costume design: Candice Donnelly . Lighting design: Philip S. Rosenberg . Sound design: Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen . Choreography: Daniel Pelzig . Fight choreography: Ted Hewlett . Music director: Barbara Irvine . Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jon Boughtin.
Lisa Troshinsky . Washington Diplomat
Bob Mondello . City Paper
Patrick Folliard . WashingtonBlade
Malcolm Barnes . CDN
Heather Nadolny . BroadwayWorld
Roger Catlin . MDTheatreGuide
Barbara Trainin Blank . ShowBizRadio
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Jane Horwitz . Washingtonian
Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Robert Michael Oliver . DCMetroTheaterArts