Private Lives, Busfare Productions, at A Red Orchid Theatre. Nowadays spousal abuse isn’t viewed as proof of devotion, so Noel Coward’s portrait of lovers bound together by their amorous turbulence is sure to lift eyebrows. The wonder of this brittle, brilliant 1930 comedy of marriage is that we believe so strongly that ex-partners Amanda and Elyot suit each other that we excuse them for deserting their new mates to give an old flame a second chance. Coward cloaks their sin in style, bestowing bons mots galore on his sybarites. Elyot may be an effete drone and Amanda the last of the flappers, but they make beautiful wit together – for Coward the true mating dance. It helps that the deserted spouses, simpering Sybil and pompous Victor, are made of cardboard.
Period precise and silky smooth, William T. Buster’s staging captures the quirky comedy of the couple’s codependence, at the risk of sometimes dropping the energy to suggest sophistication. Buster as Elyot comes close enough to the charming cad who could reclaim Jennifer Banks’s sensuous Amanda: she brings deft comic instincts and a fashion plate figure to Buster’s gorgeous 30s gowns. When Banks sighs, “One can’t stay happy,” it’s a valedictory for the Jazz Age. Tim Shiner makes Victor properly thick, and Joan Afton depicts the dotty Sybil with surprising dignity: in a role that all but effaces itself, given Coward’s ready ridicule, Afton is poignantly real.