COWARD ON THE BEACH
Noël Coward’s oft-produced classic Private Lives is indeed, as one of his characters states, jagged with sophistication. The story is of a divorced, fiercely contentious, and veddy British couple who, having reconnected on the honeymoon night of their new marriages, run off with each other to Paris, abandoning their respective spouses. Once they rekindle their stormy association, it becomes clear that their litigious love is intrinsic – indeed, necessary – to their relationship. The subject matter – affairs, abusive love – is still somewhat shocking, but the story is as thin as a tea biscuit. It is the sophisticated, droll, and entertaining language which is the meat of the play. Coward once wrote, “The critics [of the original 1930 production] described Private Lives variously as ‘tenuous, thin, brittle, gossamer, iridescent, and delightfully daring’. All of which connoted in the public mind cocktails, repartee and irreverent allusions to copulation, thereby causing a gratifying number of respectable people to queue up at the box office.” Without actors who capture the Cowardesque witticisms with nuances that drip in irony, all of the jagged sophistication can be deadly dull.
Fortunately, Andrew Barnicle’s tight direction and nifty casting at the Laguna Playhouse create a most entertaining evening. The aforementioned volatile couple is Elyot and Amanda. Joseph Fuqua’s take on Elyot is unadulterated neocolonialist – unlike the British Imperialists who would take political control of a country, Fuqua is intent on cultural control; he wields his vocabulary as a hunter would brandish a gun on the African plains – it’s almost as if Mr. Fuqua is thinking, “Point. Aim. Shoot.” Julie Granada is cool, elegant and feral as Amanda; she is the lioness who enjoys outwitting the hunter. Matthew Floyd Miller portrays Victor, Amanda’s new husband, with an overstuffed bravado, a perfect choice for one who is threatened by the hold that Amanda’s previous paramour has on her. Winslow Corbett infuses Sybil, Elyot’s bride, with a flagrant and whiny neediness, born of her inability to control her groom; Corbett’s choice to portray her character with an immature youthfulness validates that her character has yet to develop the prowling game-playing technique that Elyot finds so fascinating in Amanda.
Set designer Bruce Goodrich opted for the look of a chic Parisian hotel for Amanda’s flat, a relief from the over-decorated Bohemian set designs seen in previous productions. Likewise, Julie Keen’s costume design treats us to the style of the everyday sophisticate, versus the Hollywood glamour look. Paulie Jenkins full-stage lighting is serviceable, but lacks nuance – the lights on the actors seem to be above the action, instead of emanating from the windows or the many lamps on stage. On the other hand, Corinne Carillo’s sound is astute and directional; music does indeed seem to be coming from a radio or a party down below the terrace that the honeymooners share.
There is a reason that Private Lives is given life on the boards world-wide, with over a dozen revivals on the West End and Broadway alone: audiences are starved for literate dialogue. As the modern age threatens to destroy the art of communication, Noël Coward’s work reminds us that sophisticated language, which some may see as hoity-toity, actually nourishes our soul.
tonyfrankel @ stageandcinema.com
scheduled to close April 10 at time of publication
for tickets, visit http://lagunaplayhouse.com/onstage/2011/private/