PRIVATE LIVES, Writers’ Theatre Chicago. Noel Coward based his flawless 1930 script on more than just a road map of the heart. As Michael Halberstam’s adept staging artfully reveals, Private Lives continually transforms one fascinating tension into another in this tale of two ill-matched couples honeymooning in Deauville. Amanda and Elyot, embodying wealthy eccentricity and jazz age abandon, are a divorced couple who end up deserting their new younger spouses to reunite, fleeing to Paris for a second chance at love. In dialogue that shifts from gossamer to caustic in a trice, Coward masterfully depicts the guilt that convulses these old flames after they desert their new partners. But Coward deftly reverses our sense of remorse for them: Sybil and Victor are horribly right for each other. The witty rebels win, if only by default.

Halberstam captures every absorbing twist, whipcord quip, and quicksilver retort. And however authentic Lisa Harrison’s fashion-plate costumes, Shannon Cochran’s bittersweet Amanda is no formulaic flapper; languorous and lethal, she’s a spirited match for William Brown’s dry, knowing Elyot. It’s a joy to watch these pros spar and spoon, veteran spouses in an enternal ninth round.

Kelly McAdams is perfect as Elyot’s ninny bride, brittle, literal, and humor impaired, and Shawn Douglass an efficient stuffed suit as the patronizing Victor. Rick Paul’s art deco set and Coward’s vintage ballads are a rich match. Especially refreshing is the clever way Halberstam honors the stage directions for smoking without actually poisoning the air. –Lawrence Bommer