‘Private Lives’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company

Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy Private Lives, now playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, could not be more richly produced, more beautifully and expertly acted, or more soundly staged. Coward’s wit is undeniably sharp and his situations are grand and well-designed.

Yet, although I tried mightily to engage this production, to care about its characters and their issues, I found myself struggling to embrace their stylish manners, their spoiled behavior and petty concerns, and their outlandishly predictable predicament.

Bianca Amato and James Waterston. Photo by Paul Marotta.
Bianca Amato and James Waterston. Photo by Paul Marotta.

Perhaps the flaw lies in me. Perhaps, I’ve seen or read too many 20th/21st century tales where bored, idle, rich people follow their passionate personal interests and peccadilloes to nowhere. Perhaps, I’ve grown too familiar with the struggles of everyday life to pull the plug willingly, allowing myself to escape to Coward’s fairy tale world where people exist without responsibilities, jobs, or families and where there are no consequences for childish choices. Perhaps, I’ve become too jaded with life’s memory and knowledge to suspend my disbelief and laugh when drunk lover X hits annoying lover Y and Y comes back for more from X, no matter how pretty X is or full of vim and vinegar Y happens to be.

Or perhaps, Coward’s Private Lives and the sensibilities it presents about the human condition are no longer apropos to a 21st century where real world struggles trump the passion-problems of the one percent.

To be sure, by the audience response to the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Private Lives, the fault lies squarely in this critic and his psycho-emotional perspective, not in any mismatch between script and century. I should be taking lessons on how to laugh more thoroughly at the unacknowledged narcissistic self-absorption of those who have no real issues other than their lack of issues.

Coward’s story is simple. Wealthy socialites Sibyl and Elyot are on the first day of their honeymoon. Amanda and Victor are on the first day of their honeymoon as well.Both couples have gone to a hotel in Deauville; they are both at the beginning of what they hope will be good if not ideal marriages.

The problem of the story arises from the fact that Elyot and Amanda used to be married to each other, and they still are attracted to each other; or, rather, they have the hots for each other, and I’m talking forest fire hot, the kind that tears clothes off in public places and only later dies from embarrassment.

We first meet the newlyweds Sibyl and Elyot. Sibyl, as played by Autumn Hurlbert, bubbles with youthful zeal: a first marriage, a first honeymoon at an exclusive seaside resort on the coast of France, a first sexual encounter with her tall, debonair man-of-the-world husband, as well as a first obsession with her husband’s first wife, Amanda. Hurlbert’s eagerness would be infectious if not for the presence of her husband Elyot.

Elyot, played masterfully by James Waterston, stands as Sibyl’s opposite.  If her middle name is “enthusiasm”, Elyot’s would have to be “apathy”. Aloof, always in control, having little need for the world and its problems, his Elyot exists as an empty vessel save for his passion for Amanda. Hence, his mind is elsewhere, and given the fact that Sibyl cannot help mentioning his x-wife’s name, we must assume that his “elsewhere” is Amanda. From the get-go, we know this marriage is doomed.

Bianca Amato’s Amanda takes the stage with grace and power. She has the charm of a modern day socialite, and she oozes with contempt for those beneath her, save for her new husband, Victor. She, like her ex, is doing her best to move on, to accept a mate who adores her, who wants to make her happy, who will take care of her, but one who stirs her not in the least.  If Hedda Gabler were to wake and find herself in the middle of a comedy, Bianca Amato’s Amanda would be it.

Jeremy Webb’s Victor has all the good sense of the business man he is. He knows that he’s in over his head with Amanda, but fatally assumes that with clarity and reason he can navigate the turbulent waters. His Victor is clearly no sailor, however; for the seas he is about to bed will swamp his deck and drown his crew.

Finally, let us not forget the French maid Louise, played by Jane Ridley.  Quirky and speaking only in French, she knows enough to stay away from the idiocy of the English upper classes. Her entrances are few, her stays brief, but her impression is large.

Maria Aitken has directed the production and has done a masterful job. The stage action is clear and inventive, the timing acute, and the comedy fun.

Her production team is first rate. Set Designer Allen Moyer has created two fantastic environments for the action and, as lit by Philip S. Rosenberg, they reek with grandeur. Costume Designer Candice Donnelly has successfully heightened the beauty of the two leads, extending their lines and grace.  Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen did the sound design and music arrangements, and they were succinct and sweet.

In his scripts, Noel Coward always flirts with the philosophical, with questions of morality and social mores. And Private Lives definitely does that. His two leads–seemingly rich beyond compare and without any identifiable purpose or religion or job or cause or social consciousness or hope for the future–have only their passion for each other to fill the emptiness.  That passion defines who and what they are.

James Waterston, Jeremy Webb, Bianca Amato, and Autumn Hurlbert. Photo by Paul Marotta.
James Waterston, Jeremy Webb, Bianca Amato, and Autumn Hurlbert. Photo by Paul Marotta.

In the end, as Sibyl and Victor’s obsession with discussing their newlyweds’ ex-spouses spoils their honeymoons, Coward’s obsession with flirting with the philosophical and the meaninglessness in which Amanda and Elyot live their lives made their predicament no laughing matter and spoiled the play for me.

Nevertheless, Private Lives playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company is a first-rate production.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including two-10-minute intermissions.

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Private Lives plays through July 13, 2014 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre -450 7th St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.

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Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., considers himself a Creativist. He has been involved in education and the performing arts in the Washington area since the 1980s. He, along with his wife, Elizabeth Bruce, and Jill Navarre, co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in 1983. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theater and performance studies from the University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theater over the five years he worked as a reviewer than he saw in the previous 30. He now co-directs the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project. He has his first book of poetry, The Dark Diary: in 27 refracted moments, due for publication by Finishing Line Press later this year.


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