“Strange,” muses one of the lovers in Private Lives, as an offstage orchestra plays a melancholy tune, “how potent cheap music is.” Private Lives, too, is potent, but there’s nothing cheap about it. Nearly 60 years after it took London and Broadway by storm, Noel Coward’s classy comedy of marital manners is striking not so much for its period panache as for its remarkably contemporary attitude toward love and friendship between men and women.
Here are Amanda and Elyot, thrown together by fate five years after their divorce. Both have remarried, and they must try to manage the demons their love for each other unleashes. They lounge together on the sofa between bouts of lovemaking, chat idly about their lives during their separation, and, suddenly overtaken by fits of jealousy, possessiveness, vanity, and pure stubbornness, try like mad to find a balance between civility and the demands of their passionate natures. As charted by Coward, in a script notable not just for its witty one-liners but for its brilliant, convincingly quirky build, Amanda and Elyot’s relationship is something we fall in love with, something we want to succeed — not because they’re rich and beautiful and chic, but because theirs is a marriage of equals. Not that that equality doesn’t require effort to maintain: Elyot is susceptible to excesses of ego, telling Amanda that it’s all right for him to have had affairs during their divorce because he’s the man; and Amanda is equally susceptible to vanity, urging Elyot to do battle for her with her new husband. But Coward convinces us that the lovers’ reconciliation would be not only romantic but a victory for common sense, for laughter, a victory against “all the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable,” as Elyot puts it.
Nicolas Kent’s smoothly paced staging of the work for the Court Theatre underscores this humanistic aspect of Coward’s vision by casting Amanda and Elyot not as impossibly elegant clotheshorses but as nice, normal people. Daniel Oreskes is free of the epicene hauteur one associates with Coward; he playfully shares with us his delight in Coward’s fresh and flippant attitude toward life. As Amanda, the role made famous by Gertrude Lawrence and more recently made vulgar by Elizabeth Taylor, Pat Bowie avoids the commonplace interpretations of flighty madcap and slinking vamp; she’s a smart, good-natured woman with her feet planted just firmly enough on the earth to know that she’d much rather be up in the air.
Extremely good support comes from William Brown as the stuffy, conventional Victor (the role that launched Laurence Olivier to fame) and from Janet A. Carr as Sibyl, Elyot’s shrill-voiced young bride. Jeff Bauer’s set and Kaye Nottbusch’s costumes are suitably 30s, with just the slightest bohemian touch to match the characters who wear them. This is a comfortable and thoroughly charming production of one of modern theater’s genuine light classics.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Keith Swinden.