Private Lives by Noël Coward. Directed by Tony Simotes.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Very few people are normal, really, down in their private lives."
Dana Harrison and David Joseph; photo: Kevin Sprague
When Noël Coward, in 1930, wrote this comedy for himself and his best friend Gertrude Lawrence he opened up a window on human relationships that was not revealing just the funny-bone of romance, it gave force to the vista of intimacy that would shake apart the modern world allowing hundreds of artists to expose their closest-held secrets with impunity. Like the best works of art in every generation from Sophocles through Shakespeare to Edward Albee and Neil Simon, Coward used language and his thorough understanding of the human psyche to create a classic that has never grown stale or old, never failed in even the worst productions, to invite its audience inside the mind and heart simultaneously of each of his characters. And still we laugh.
Shakespeare and Company’s winter production of this delectable theatrical morsel is a celebration of what is best in the playwright’s language. Created words such as "sollocks" do as much to reveal the urgency and impatience of Amanda Prynne and Elyot Chase as do their actions. Hauteur and poses, truthful interactions and spiteful accusations are as much a part of the make-up of this couple as are their inclinations to argue, their irresistible attraction to one another and their deeper understanding of what makes the other one tick. Under the very interesting eyes of director Tony Simotes who comes to this work as a novice in this genre of linguistic comedy Dana Harrison and David Joseph illuminate Amanda and Elyot as other actors have not. Is the resultant work strictly Coward? No. It is almost Albee as we laugh, half-heartedly, at this early version of a couple who might grow into Martha and George in Albee’s "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf." Hatefully humorous.
Harrison is svelte and stunning in gorgeous costumes by Govane Lohbauer. But her hair is a mess from start to finish in this play and there seems to be no logical reason for it. In fact, this one single element transforms Amanda from a willful, arch woman of the world into a slattern. There is little the actress can do to control our vision of Amanda in this state. Harrison manages to provide at least a score of insights with her subtle reactions and her verbal fisticuffs and yet she never pulls off the charm of the character because she never looks right. I don’t know why this is so, but perhaps it is the strong visuals we have of that period of time. No woman, even at home with her husband or her lover, would allow herself to be seen with stray strands of hair flying in all directions. As good as is Harrison’s performance, it is weakened immeasurably by the look she presents. It is rarely possible to believe that this Amanda is someone Coward would have presented to the world.
On the opposite side of the larger coin in the presentation is David Joseph, also beautifully clothed by Lohbauer, who never allows even one vagrant curl to fall loose from his coiffeur. His performance is nearly flawless, in fact even if he does speedily swallow one classic line that knowing audience members wait for and, this time, were unable to react to in its rush to be said. That aside, this is as good an Elyot as I’ve seen. Joseph’s place in the Shakes&Co roster is certainly assured with this star turn. An excellent ensemble player here he steps forward as he has never done before and becomes a company pride. Like Harrison half of his best moments are in the visual reactions to actions and words delivered by others. It is his remarkable control of the character in every way that makes him a stand-out: looking good in period clothing, using his hands and head and feet in a complex 1930's manner, delivering Coward’s lines with precision and clarity, finding his way through the class structure with ease and accomplishment. It is these elements that make him the Elyot of his generation.
Adam Huff as Victor Prynne, Amanda’s husband, is an excellent choice for such a role. A hair too young, and without the British stuffiness usually accorded Victor, he manages to pull off the difficult spots and the sweet ones as well. Like his peers he addresses Coward’s world in Coward’s words and provides us with a clear picture of the man Amanda has married. His third act (here third scene) conversion to another type of man was handled with aplomb.
Sybil Chase is played by Annie Considine and she is burdened with a bad Shirley Temple appearance in a bad wig and the only clothing in the show not appropriate to the character or the actress. An innocent English girl (and is there such a thing? - ask Shakespeare who even made Juliet worldly) who has married a sophisticated older man (though only seven years her senior) she should be rosy-cheeked and fresh with excitement and not yet the image of her mother whom Elyot despises, but here Sybil is just that and its far too soon. Dressed more appropriately in the second half of the show she takes on a much better sensibility and the actress has a better chance to present Coward’s not-so-gentle ingenue. It’s not that Considine is bad or wrong for the role, she just has an uphill battle of believability in the trappings in which she has been provided.
Slightly expanded, I believe, is the role of Louise, French Maid, and delightfully rendered is the part by Elizabeth "Lily" Cardaropoli. This, in spite of the fact that the play has received a few major cuts.
Noël Coward’s wit has often been seen as the element that saves his shallow characters and narrow plays, but the truth, as exposed by director Tony Simotes and his talented cast is this: Coward has written a play with levels of human sorrow to be revealed and examined. All four of his principal characters have secrets that are never revealed, back-stories that could be plays of their own. The work exposed here depends less upon wit than it does on character and character flaws. That we still laugh at the best lines is due to the actors, but that we see other things is set deep and hard in the director’s vision. I think this is the ninth production I’ve seen, some with stars like Joan Collins, Elizabeth Taylor, Elaine Stritch, Richard Burton and Russell Nype in the lead parts. In this production I witnessed a vision of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, post-"Gatsby" and still playing at their pre-novel representations. This is intriguing work.
Worth the price of admission are the two sets by Patrick Brennan, most of Govane Lohbauer’s costumes and the beautiful and sensitive lighting by James Bilnoski. I question a few of the sound choices by Carmen-Maria Mandley, but she satisfies all the requirements of the script including a Paris boulevard three stories down.
If I have the time I will see this production again toward the end of its run to find out just how far the actors have come to understanding and conveying the deeper truths in their characters lives. If Noël Coward was alive, I think he’d do the same thing.
Annie Considine and Adam Huff; photo: Kevin Sprague
David Joseph and Dana Harrison; photo: Kevin Sprague
Private Lives plays through March 30 in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company’s location, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line at www.shakespeare.org.