Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2008
“I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives.”
– Noel Coward, “Private Lives” 1929
Certainly Noel Coward (1899-1973) wasn’t what was considered “normal” in his private life. A closeted gay man, as one pretty much had to be in his youth, he even managed to alienate the gay community with his views on the sex act. But in his public life he was brilliant. He made his stage debut at the age of eleven. By twenty he was starring in London’s West End in a play he had written. Many of his plays, including Private Lives, which he wrote in only four days while recovering from a bout of the flu in 1929, were considered controversial, even scandalous, in their day, but most of them were hits. He also wrote music and musicals. In the last decade of his life he was playing Las Vegas. He remained famous until the day he died.
Coward wrote Private Lives for his dear friend Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952), and he played Elyot to her Amanda during the 1930 London season. A young actor named Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) was cast in the role of Victor, and by the time Coward, Lawrence, and Olivier crossed the Atlantic to present the show on Broadway in 1931, Olivier’s new bride Jill Esmond was playing the role of Sibyl.
So it could not be clearer that Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne ARE Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. Although those are enormous shoes for anyone to fill, Private Lives has become Coward’s most enduring work, and many well-known actors have taken a crack at the leading roles.
It seemed a sensible choice for Barrington Stage to close their 2008 season with. BSC has cast stars from their very own firmament – Christopher Innvar, who has been a favorite leading man with the company for many seasons now, and Gretchen Egolf, who was very well received in last season’s Stage II opener A Picasso. They are young, attractive, and talented. And while they are lovely to look at and say and do amusing things from time to time, I never believed they were Elyot and Amanda. They just never managed to be “Noel Coward People” for me.
This is the second time I have seen a fine cast tackle this play and leave me somehow unconvinced of their authenticity. The first time I dared to venture that they were just too American, and that is undoubtedly the problem here too. Despite the deeply plumy accents that most of the cast sustains most of the time, I am never convinced that they are British. And “Noel Coward People” are nothing if not veddy, veddy British.
The exception to this is the small role of Louise, the maid, played by the way-too-talented-to-be-wasted-in-this-part Tandy Cronyn. The reason Louise didn’t strike me as British is because she is French. The role is written entirely in French and is intended, obviously, to display the millennia-old differences between those two close neighbors and bitter rivals. Cronyn does her part, but since the Brits are way too Colonial the culture clash at which Coward was originally poking fun at fails to play out. But there are equally amusing differences between Americans and just about any other ethnic group on the planet, and Cronyn does her little bit extremely well.
I should do a quick plot synopsis for you, in case you are a Coward Virgin. Elyot and Amanda were married for three years and have been divorced for another five by the time we meet them on the adjoining balconies of their respective honeymoon suites on the coast of France. Amanda has just married Victor Prynne (the feisty Mark H. Dold), and Elyot has picked up a 23-year-old trophy wife named Sibyl (Rebecca Broksher). Despite their vivid memories of their tempestuous and physically violent marriage, Amanda and Elyot realize almost immediately that they have each made a horrible mistake and they elope together, leaving Victor and Sibyl high and dry on their respective wedding nights.
Acts II and III take place in Amanda’s Paris flat, where the couple have hidden from their new spouses and the world for a week. So far so good, but soon everything comes unraveled in every conceivable way. Amanda and Elyot thoroughly trash the living room and each other, just in time for Victor and Sibyl to find them.
I won’t give away the ending, but I will explain that all of this is written in high British-upper-class-between-wars style. Cocktails are consumed, pianos are played, and witty repartee rules the day. The only thing missing is a butler named Jeeves.
Dold is also a popular Barrington Stage regular – he and Innvar played a memorable Algernon and Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest back when BSC was still down in Sheffield – and he is in fine comic fettle as Victor, a part that made even Olivier struggled to make interesting. Dold’s Victor was the first I’ve ever seen who actually looked a match for Amanda, not just her latest boy-toy.
I last saw Brooksher in 2005 in The Nina Variations at what is now the Chester Theatre Company. While I found that a frustrating play, Brooksher’s performance made enough of an impression on me that I recognized her right away as “Nina.” She has lovely expressive eyes, which are of less use to her here where she merely has to look young and pretty and cry a lot, but I enjoyed watching her morph Sibyl from a sweet clinging vine to an independent little hussy.
Since I cannot imagine Julianne Boyd sitting there thinking: “Who shall I cast in the little part of the French maid? Oh I know, I’ll get Tandy Cronyn. She’ll play anything.” I choose to believe instead that Ms. Cronyn picks up the phone each spring and says, “Julie, what little bijou role do you have for me this summer?” However the matter is ultimately contracted, there is no doubt in my mind that Ms. Cronyn looks on her semi-annual appearances in a minor role at BSC as a happy lark. I hope someday soon she will have the time and the inclination to grace us with her talents in a larger, meatier part.
Egolf and Innvar may not be Lawrence and Coward, but they are very good, and they are very, very easy on the eyes. Egolf has a model’s figure and costume designer Elizabeth Flauto has draped her in acres of sumptuous silk/satin for most of the play. She looks divine and very, very 1930, which was a glamorous and daring time for women’s fashions. Clinging, bias cut dresses, such as Egolf wears in Act I, didn’t drape properly if you wore underwear. And for a time not too far removed from the bustle and corset era, that idea was both very, very shocking and very, very liberating.
Flauto has also used one of my very favorite color combinations – teal green (on Elyot) and fuchsia (on Amanda) – in Act II. Egolf and Innvar look good enough to eat in those pajamas and robes!
In is therefore a great pity, with all the pretty people and smart banter on stage, that Karl Eigsti’s set for Acts II and II is just hideous. It is too big and contains vast expanses of grimy they-were-white-once walls, decorated with poor attempts at art deco styling painted in all the wrong colors. An entire third of the back wall is covered, floor to ceiling, with an enormous window – which looks out on nothing (where did Paris go?) – covered by a burgundy (nothing else on the set is that color) curtain that blows in the wind constantly, although the window is presumably closed. I cannot imagine the set is unfinished, but I rather wish it was. It would make me very happy to think that the walls weren’t always going to be that grubby gray.
Finally, there is the question of domestic violence. Elyot and Amanda hit and kick and bite each other. They are evenly matched and their aggression is not intended to wound and maim, but certainly to sting. It was interesting that when Amanda broke a record over Elyot’s head (in other words she struck the first blow) the audience laughed, but when he retaliated by slapping her cheek, they gasped in horror. I hate to tell you people, but men bruise and bleed the same as women. Women are more likely to be the victims of domestic violence, but it works both ways, and in this case it does. Coward intends us to accept this couple’s physical aggression as a normal and healthy part of their relationship, but the scene is unsettling nonetheless, particularly with Othello running just down the road...
The Barrington Stage Company production of the Private Lives runs through August 24 on the Main Stage at 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission between Acts I & II, and a brief pause for rearranging props between Acts II & III. Ages 12 and up will probably get a kick out of Coward, although modern audiences will be appalled at the number of cigarettes smoked and cocktails downed, not to mention the scene in which Amanda and Elyot smack each other around. Please call the box office at (413) 236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org to purchase tickets or for more information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008
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