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Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives’: a boxing match of words and manners

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY DANTE J.J. BEVILACQUA 
For 21st-Century Media

Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” is a veritable boxing match of words and manners laced with subtext and glamour that in many ways requires a specific style and technique.
Picture your honeymoon. You’re thrilled to be at your destination. You are ready for a new start. And undoubtedly, you cannot, in that moment, picture anything bad occurring during this blissful event. That is, until you suddenly see your ex. This nightmare situation serves as the basic plot of Coward’s play.
It is ultimately a witty, sly and irreverent play about the people whose style overshadows their substance.
Some of us remember the 1983 canny exploitation of this piece; guaranteed to turn out the crowds, with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, scarred survivors of tabloids and marital wars, wheeling their circus into Philadelphia for a packed house, pre-Broadway run.
Private Lives is a difficult play to do well and an easy one to ruin. Director Bob Carlton has chosen to do his version in melodrama with mugging, posturing and too many exaggerated gestures. The result is a silly comedy of manners that is overdrawn and eventually tedious. The quick-witted script, set in the 1930s, is great fodder for belly laughs but Carlton’s methodology drains the play of its fizz.
Elyot Chase, five years divorced, has just married a young bride, Sybil, with whom he is on his honeymoon at a French seaside resort. His former wife, Amanda Prynne, has also just remarried, and, coincidentally, she and Victor, her new husband, are also honeymooning in the room next door.
Almost immediately, Elyot and Amanda rediscover each other on their adjoining balconies, find themselves drawn to each other, and abandon their new spouses at the resort to run away together to Paris.
The major action of the play shows us the relationship of Elyot and Amanda in Paris as they try to sustain their rekindled love and avoid the pitfalls that destroyed their original marriage.
Both are passionate, uninhibited, live-in-the-moment people, and both have married very traditional, predictable and conformist new spouses. When Sybil and Victor eventually discover the lovers, who, by now, are fighting and even engaging in fisticuffs, Coward makes his point about the nature of relationships, their fragility and what makes them endure.
“Private Lives” is sometimes described as a “plot-less play about purposeless people.” But it can succeed in its real purpose: to simply entertain while poking fun at the empty-headed worries of idle rich people.
Perhaps, I’ve grown too familiar with the struggles of everyday life to willingly pull the plug, allowing myself to escape to Coward’s fairy tale world where people exist without responsibilities, jobs or families and where there are no consequences for childish choices. I found myself struggling to embrace their spoiled behavior and petty concerns, and their outlandishly predictable situation.
The hardworking actors in this misdirected play include Lauren Sowa as Sybil, Greg Wood as Elyot, Dan Hodge as Victor, Kathleen, Wallace as Amanda and Clare O’Malley, who completely misses the opportunity in the French maid, Louise.
IF YOU GO: “Private Lives” continues at Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia through March 1. Tickets: $20 – $85. Information: 215-574-3555 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

Kathleen Wallace, Dan Hodge, Greg Wood and Lauren Sowa star in Walnut Street Theatreís production of NoÎl Cowardís Private Lives.  Photo by Mark Garvin

Kathleen Wallace, Dan Hodge, Greg Wood and Lauren Sowa star in Walnut Street Theatreís production of NoÎl Cowardís Private Lives.
Photo by Mark Garvin

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