Noel Coward’s elegant, daffy Private Lives begins where most comedies end. Two pairs of honeymooners take in the scenery at Deauville, France’s classiest seaside resort. While an orchestra plays below, they prepare for a fashionably late repast. Then they talk: first Elyot, tuxedoed to the nines, and pert wife Sibyl; then Amanda, in flowing silks, and prim husband Victor. It soon becomes clear that what should be a honeymoon sounds more like a first date, since the brides and grooms don’t know their new mates from Adam.
It’s also clear that the couples are mismatched. Social anarchists Elyot and Amanda could be related. As could proper Sibyl and Victor. So maybe opposites do attract. Or maybe, in this case at least, things have “gone a mucker.”
Victor, who considers himself “normal,” tells Amanda that she seems different now. She’s rather scary “at close quarters.”
“Very few people are completely normal really, deep down, in their private lives,” replies Amanda, adding, “There’s no knowing what one mightn’t do.”
In a circumstance fiction writers wouldn’t dare pen, since there’s no way it could have happened, Amanda and Elyot — honeymooners at the same hotel with different spouses, separated only by shrubbery — were previously married. They divorced, he says, because they were “ridiculously over in love.” So over, in fact, that they pretty much tormented each other nonstop.
It’s 1930. There’s a Depression outside. But instead of seriousness, Elyot and Amanda adopt what amounts to a philosophical stance: flippancy. Rather than make a “ceaseless quest for ultimate truth,” he tells Amanda, “you mustn’t be serious, my dear one, it’s just what they want.” Elyot encourages laughter, not merely at the “moralists who try to make life unbearable,” but even at themselves. They use it most often as an escape hatch from responsibility.
Noel Coward, who wrote the play for himself and Gertrude Lawrence, beat his harshest critics to the draw by calling Private Lives a well-constructed but “psychologically unstable” piffle. The credo of flippancy heaves a subversive barb at orthodoxy. It’s certain to have a brief shelf-life (maybe only the length of the play). During that time Elyot and Amanda find not their “inner child” — more like their “inner brat.” Nonetheless, to them fireworks and flying pillows are preferable to the dullness of convention.
Marketing audience-researchers who think along safe, traditional lines, take note: Cygnet’s allegedly “risky” Sweeney Todd filled houses night after night. Play selection, even in these troubled times, doesn’t have to appeal solely to Sibyls and Victors.
After that raucous smash hit, as if to flaunt its versatility, Cygnet tore off in a different direction: 1930s, period, style, speech. Their Private Lives has the required sophistication but also — under Sean Murray and Francis Gercke’s codirection and George Ye’s fight choreography — a surprising physicality. Cygnet’s actors become bodies in motion, often on a collision course with each other.
Rough-and-tumble, almost slapstick moves can’t account for Elyot’s crack that “certain women should be struck regularly, like dogs” — or when he tells Amanda, “I didn’t try to hit you hard.” The legendary Private Lives is both a period piece and dated.
Cygnet’s splashy production raises a question: Where has Shana Wride been? A local favorite, she hasn’t performed in years — since the Rep’s Women Who Steal? Maybe she’s been studying the role of Amanda in the interim. It would seem so. She’s first-rate as the stylish, mercurial free spirit. Every light, spontaneous move feels just right.
As dour Elyot, Sean Murray matches Wride, even some of her gestures — suggesting they are a natural pair, in spite of differences. They turn act 2 into a bipolar steeplechase, building and defusing drama with breathless expertise.
Coward admitted that Victor and Sibyl, as written, are “little better than ninepins” to be bowled over repeatedly. Manny Fernandes and Jessica John build credible people — he rectitude-squared, she given to arias of giggles — out of thin air. So does Annie Hinton as Louise, the maid, whose few lines barely qualify as a cameo.
Shirley Pierson’s costumes are spot-on, and Eric Lotze’s lighting (especially the rust-colored glows) is remarkable. For act 1, scenic designer Andrew Hull re-creates the terrace of a French Riviera hotel. The sturdy set looks permanent. Nowadays most scene changes happen either by moving a few props or electronically rolling larger objects into place with computers. For Cygnet, stage manager Heather Brose, along with Rosalee Barrientos and Jennifer Kozumplik, do an extraordinary turnabout. And it’s all hands-on. In about ten minutes, they convert the hotel into Amanda’s posh, pillow-infested, gorgeous Parisian flat. In effect, the Cygnet show’s so slavishly period it even changes scenes the old-fashioned way. ■
Private Lives by Noel Coward
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Directed by Francis Gercke and Sean Murray; cast: Murray, Jessica John, Shana Wride, Manny Fernandes, Annie Hinton; scenic design, Andrew Hull; costumes, Shirley Pierson; lighting, Eric Lotze; sound, Matt Lescault-Wood
Playing through July 3; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. 619-337-1525.