Extraordinary how potent cheap music is. –Private Lives
Cheap theater, however, is not. Right now you can’t get less theater for your money than this tepid, inept stab at Private Lives, a dismal offering from the so-called Live Theatre.
Of all God’s blunders Noel Coward hated bores the most. Yet A.C. Thomas perversely makes Coward’s best-known comedy a heavy contender for the tedium trophy. Abandoning such baggage as wit and style, Thomas’s mauling aims mainly for the nasty and the smug. Unburdened by any dull desire to ground the dialogue in rounded characters, Thomas treats the lines as if they had been only arbitrarily distributed to the actors. Coward was never as contemptibly obvious as this.
It’s a diabolical pity because, though Private Lives is a brittle, unashamedly artificial play, this final fizz of the jazz age is also a clever study of mismatched couples on doomed honeymoons. While escaping to the south of France with his bride, the stupid ninny Sybil, the epicene Elyot Chase encounters his temperamental first wife, Amanda. Though Amanda is now married to a bilious prig so ordinary he’s a walking narcotic, that proves no impediment to the estranged lovers’ tempestuous and inevitable reconciliation.
Elyot’s old flame, of course, has never gone out. Recognizing in Amanda the hearty party girl with whom he shared so many memorable squabbles, Elyot finds her hedonistic flippancy irresistible, especially when set against Sybil’s stuffy “quiet womanliness.” (“Let’s be superficial and pity the poor philosophers,” Elyot enthuses in what is virtually Noel Coward’s credo.)
Despite their history of casual infidelities, the ex-spouses are certain their divorce deserves a second chance. In the second act, as if to twist the knife, Coward drags back the rejected, bickering fiances whose stodgy righteousness again justifies Elyot and Amanda’s marital make-over. Perhaps the author was right to pursue the contrast. Viewed from outside, Amanda and Elyot may be precious parasites, but Coward was smart enough to surround his blithe spirits with stuffed shirts of antiseptic respectability; in that company the two can only shine.
In the six decades since Gertrude Lawrence gave it greatness, Private Lives has almost succumbed to its success, spawning a slew of imitators from The Philadelphia Story to The Graduate. To bring this froth to life in 1989 you have to play it about as spontaneously as spring, with the ex-lovers as unaware of their unfinished love affair as we are not. But with one exception, Thomas’s staging shows next to no design for acting; it’s jerky and glacial in its pacing, incompetent in its accents, self-conscious in its mannerisms, and directionless in its scene-building. The play ends with a thud, its frenetic finale so badly orchestrated you can’t believe it’s over. You want to force the actors to do it over and over again until they get it right.
Coward’s gilded butterflies dwindle into dead moths, with the exception of Cynthia Armstrong’s sulky-sweet Amanda. Rather than settle for recitations sporadically goosed into half a life, Armstrong actually pins her lines to a person. But she’s as good as it gets. Joe Costa Jr. may not be dashing, but his Elyot must have more to offer than paltry and unearned rages, cloying small talk, and a dull slow burn.
Bridget Killeen Brown may lack technique, but that doesn’t mean her hysterical Sybil feels at all natural. As the dead stick Amanda imprudently marries, Russell Easton Carter manages to carry wooden acting to sequoia lengths. These lives should have remained very, very private.
But the mediocrity doesn’t end with the acting. Though the setting is the early 30s, the pedestrian set prominently displays a bright yellow abstract painting that’s an arrant anachronism, and an unfinished, flowerless trellis meant to suggest a Riviera terrace. Finally, no mean feat, the costumes manage to miss their period by decades.
A last cavil. Noel Coward lived when smoking was thought sophisticated; Private Lives contains a scene where Elyot and Amanda supposedly display their independence from bourgeois fetters by elegantly sucking on cancer sticks. In a large theater this pollution wouldn’t seem so toxic, but in Live Theatre’s tiny 50-seat space this particular suspension of disbelief means suspension of breathing. As for contemporary playwrights who write smoking scenes that they inflict on nonsmoking actors and audiences, they damn well better make sure they take place offstage.