Private Lives by Noël Coward. Directed by Julianne Boyd.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...deep down in their Private Lives."
Christopher Innvar and Gretchen Egolf; photo: Kevin Sprague
The course of true love in the world of sophisticated ladies and gentlemen never runs smooth. At least that was the belief of the author Noël Coward. In his 1930's hit play "Private Lives" he put onto the stage (currently Barrington Stage) a prime example: Amanda and Elyot have been in love for eight years, three of them married and five divorced. Completely certain that they have moved on each has remarried, Elyot to the somewhat simpering, and definitely simpler, Sybil and Amanda to the earnest and over-bearing Victor. On night number one of each of their honeymoons fate has placed them side by side in a resort hotel in France that provides adjoining balconies. No balcony scene since the one in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has ever been this sophisticated, subtle and romantic. The course of true love, following this first act, becomes a rampage of hot emotions, cool behavior and more water over the falls than even a Hollywood director can imagine.
It is also very funny. Coward’s characters, written to be played by himself and his best friend, Gertrude Lawrence, are the embodiment of Coward and Lawrence themselves had they ever been inclined to marry one another. In the second act when she brings up the "other" men in her life he is hysterically appalled even while confessing that he has been on the loose and fancy free himself. He invokes the 20th century double-standard directly and she upbraids him for it. Their tendency to argue is so great that they have created a word to use to halt their battles and regain their composures. We are talking sophisticated here.
On stage in Pittsfield, Barrington Stage Company is ending its summer mainstage season with this classic. The five character comedy has been cast with five actors who can play the nuances and subtleties right alongside the broader comedy. Artistic Director Julianne Boyd has directed the play with broad strokes and period poses and the whole enterprise comes off as a comedy delight.
Amanda Prynne is portrayed by Gretchen Egolf, last seen here as the Nazi official in "A Picasso." Her restraint in that role is also seen here, but she breaks it constantly with highly unusual physical comedy. She has a smile that is unrestrained and a voice that summons fantasies. She wears clothes beautifully, dances like a demon-possessed flapper, plays both the fool and the fakir with equal strength and ability. In essence she is magical in this role, far better than most of the well-known beauties who have played in recent memory including Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor or funny women like Elaine Stritch. Egolf is probably the best Amanda I’ve seen in many years.
Christopher Innvar is taken over by Elyot Chase. This actor, whom I have not always enjoyed in the past, seems to have lost himself in this role and the Elyot that emerges in his playing is both a charmer and a cad. He allows himself to be gentle and kind, then permits himself to be bitter and mean-spirited. He goads his women into explosions then calms them with a look, a hand, a supportive gesture. He is sensual and sexual with them, is easily flustered and completely at their mercy for a moment before reaching down into some reserve of frustration and coming back in control once again. His quirks and his unusual characteristics combine with Elyot’s perfectly. Together Innvar and Egolf are not just the motor that drives this play, they are the chassis on the highway as well: drivers and driven.
Their spouses, at least at the altars on the trains, are played by Rebecca Brooksher and Mark H. Dold. She takes on the least likeable role in the play, one who inspires a Coward line oft-quoted: "Don’t quibble, Sybil." She cries, she banters, she cries, she diddles, she cries. The almost perfect performance of Brooksher is a delight. It is only in her second-act entrance that there is an unreal note in her playing. It may be that she, the actress, doesn’t shock easily, but for the moment to be as truly funny as it should be her character needs to express everything in a look. This is not easy and at every other moment in the play her Sybil was just fine, but here, at this telling moment, there is only blank expression and nothing of humor.
Dold, on the other hand plays this particular moment for all it is worth. His Victor is a handsome ass. He is over-the-top in his exuberance with his new wife and deliciously so. He plays Victor as a victor, one who has won a difficult battle - perhaps against the Goths - in capturing this incredible wife, Amanda. There is something so indelicate in his playing that though he doesn’t rub his hands together when he looks at her, you know that in his mind he is doing that and twirling his moustache at the same time. Dold plays this sort of character with relish. That shows in his voice and his face and his stance. He is delightfully funny throughout the play and his final explosion in Act Three (or here Act Two, Scene Two) is worth the wait.
The fifth wheel in this trackless dynamo is Louise, the French maid. As played by Tandy Cronyn she is not the extra baggage but the moral center of the piece. Played entirely in French, she comes in, does her work, expresses her instinctive Catholic reactions and disappears. The role is far too small for an actress of Cronyn’s capabilities but a lesser performance in this panoply of silly passions would make the role extraneous. Cronyn needs a better showcase than the bit parts this company has afforded her in the past and Louise is not it. Give her a leading part, please. Let this wonderful talent shine for more than three minutes.
Boyd does some of her finest work with this play. She has found tiny moments in which her leads can shine. She has played with the physical comedy and toyed with the verbal. She knows when to let her players play and when to tell them to hold back. She had altered the rhythms of the playwright’s dialogue and given some new meaning to otherwise over-exposed conversation. One of the best things she has done in her new theater in Pittsfield, Boyd’s "Private Lives" is a reclamation of her place as a stage director for the present and future. Not since her production of "Follies" has she found such a richness in the details. It’s great to see her back at the top of her form.
The physical production is Karl Eigsti’s personal triumph. The first act, so completely described in the Coward play, is realized well. The Paris apartment is right out of a Paramount film of the period with high ceilings, floor to ceiling windows, doors that open on a hallway that cannot accommodate the doors and people simultaneously and furniture that provided more than enough room for the sexcapades on display. Elizabeth Flauto’s costumes work wonderfully, in particular her second act lounging clothes for Amanda and Elyot. Scott Pinkney has lit the production beautifully.
Whether or not you think "Private Lives" interests you, you owe it to yourself to experience one of the best productions of this sophisticated comedy. Sophistication is not a readily available commodity any longer and a dose of it now and then, especially when it is this enjoyable, is like a tonic to the soul.
Rebecca Brooksher and Mark H. Dold; photo: Kevin Sprague
Private Lives plays at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfi8eld through August 24. Tickets are $36-$56. For schedules or to purchase tickets contact the box office at 413-236-8888 or go to their website at www.barringtonstageco.org.