A man with dark hair and a thin mustache stands left. He is wearing a tuxedo shirt and trousers, with his bow tie hanging around his neck. His left hand stretches out toward a woman in a formal blue sleeveless dress; her hand is also stretched toward his. Purple drapes hang behind them, with a collection of potted plants scattered around the stage
Rudy Galvan and Emily Tate in Private Lives at Raven Theatre Credit: Michael Brosilow

“Extraordinary,” muses Amanda, the heroine of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, “how potent cheap music is.” Her rueful observation, uttered while she is standing on the terrace of a hotel where she is staying, is in reference to a song playing in the ballroom below. The melody is described in Coward’s script as “a sentimental, romantic little tune,” but the song’s title is not identified. In most productions of the oft-revived classic play, the refrain is one of Coward’s own creations—usually “Someday I’ll Find You,” which Coward himself actually crooned in the original 1930 production, in which he portrayed Elyot, the ex-husband of Amanda, who was played by Gertrude Lawrence. The estranged couple have unexpectedly run into each other at a resort in Deauville, France, where they are both on their honeymoons—she with new husband Victor, he with new bride Sibyl. Their unexpected encounter rekindles the old flame, with disastrous results for their second attempts at marriage—and uproarious results for the audience.

Private Lives
Through 11/13: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; close captioned performance Sun 10/23, 3 PM (screens are limited), touch tour Sun 10/30 1:30 PM, Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, 773-338-2177, raventheatre.com, $40 (students/active military and veterans $15)

In Raven Theatre’s new production, smartly directed by Ian Frank, the song that triggers Amanda and Elyot’s nostalgia is Jennifer Rush’s 1984 hit “The Power of Love.” Cheap music indeed. But potent, too—at least for Elyot and Amanda, who break into a music-video fantasy (cleverly choreographed by Kristina Fluty) that Coward could never have imagined. Without changing a line of dialogue, Frank resets the action from the days of Jazz Age Britain’s “Bright Young Things” to an unspecified but decidedly more up-to-date era in keeping with the current cast’s own ages. It’s a canny move, and it works like a charm. Raven’s hilarious Private Lives is an excellent introduction to the classic comedy for those who have never seen it, but it’s also a fresh rethinking that viewers familiar with the material can appreciate. Even the twist ending that Frank gives his staging—a shrewd reversal of Coward’s original—is perfectly in line with Coward’s theme: the power of love.

While generally categorized as a “comedy of manners” in the tradition of Oscar Wilde and Somerset Maugham, Private Lives can actually be viewed as one of the first, and best, examples of the loopy “screwball comedy” genre that became so popular in the 1930s. It’s playful, irreverent, smart, and sexy, with crisp one-liners that simmer with sizzling emotional subtext. Its focus is not only Amanda and Elyot’s passion for each other—complicated by their recent marriages to second spouses—but the ridiculousness of love itself.

Emily Tate as Amanda and Rudy Galvan as Elyot are in the grip of an intense, explosive attraction that brings out both the best and worst in each of them in hilarious ways, as their irreverent, free-thinking amorality collides with their damnable streaks of jealousy, vanity, and pure stubbornness. They are great fun to watch as they play off each other, moment by moment. Tate is especially good with her mercurial shifts from edgy defiance to introspective vulnerability. Matthew Martinez Hannon and Alexis Green are Victor and Sibyl, the hapless second spouses. And—in another clever update—Bradley Halverson as Amanda’s French maid Louise is a nonbinary commentator on the story’s heterosexual hijinks, narrating Coward’s stage directions en français.