‘Private Lives’ at Walnut Street Theatre

Lovers behaving badly

In today’s enlightened world, I find myself watching Noël Coward’s Private Lives, currently at the Walnut Street Theatre, on two levels.

Change partners and dance: Wallace, Hodge, Wood, and Sowa. (Photo © Mark Garvin)

Let’s start with the rave. The production was a delight, pure fun, well-acted, and well-conceived. The staging (scenic design by Robert Koharchik) was marvelous — not a word I often use, but Amanda’s art deco flat in Paris was so wonderful I am looking for a real estate agent to find out how to rent it.

The story is basic — two exes honeymooning somewhere in France overlooking a harbor discover that they have adjacent rooms and balconies. Their attraction revives and, through a lot of banter, they (spoiler alert) run off to Paris with each other, leaving their abandoned spouses to fend for themselves.  

Kathleen Wallace as Amanda was melodramatic and just far enough over-the-top for us to adore her. She transformed from elegant independent woman to outrageous flirt to pathetic victim, all with just a change of posture. And her dance to tribal music was a wonder to behold. It took a few moments for Greg Wood to warm up to his role as Elyot, Amanda’s ex, but once he got there the energy between them was electric. As Sibyl, Elyot’s current wife, Lauren Sowa (last seen in the Lantern Theater Company’s Emma) was appropriately prim, and Dan Hodge as the stuffy Victor was pompous, yet human enough for us to understand why the women were attracted to him.

The first act zips along, then the momentum slows down in the second as the characters deal with the consequences of their choices. Even Coward’s dialogue can’t quite save us from a bit of ennui as the reunited exes battle their way to a supposedly happy ending.

This play has been performed many times in many places. While it would have been amazing to see the 1930 original with Noël Coward himself, Laurence Olivier, and Gertrude Lawrence, I did get to see the 1983 Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton (for those too young to know, they were the Beyoncé and Jay Z of their day) version, which was more about watching the stars than watching the show.

What would Dr. Phil say?

But while I laughed at this current production, I was also bothered by those pesky questions. What is really so funny about couples cheating on each other? Why do we laugh as they violate boundaries and, in today’s terms, become abusive, both physically and emotionally? Does putting Noël Coward’s name on the script and staging it elaborately distance us enough from what is really going on between these people?

I kept wondering how Amanda and Elyot would fare on Dr. Phil. I imagine them justifying their actions, again and again, going from insult to seduction with barely a moment to reflect as the good doctor asks them, “How’s that working for you?”

“Did he hit you?” Elyot asks Amanda (I’m paraphrasing here). “Yes,” she says, and the audience laughs. “Women should be struck regularly,” he says later on. Again laughter. But why? What’s so funny about that? I don’t believe all drama has to be put through the PC ringer and all uncomfortable situations removed; humor, after all, is quite often cruel, and drama allows us to look at how people deal with difficult situations.

But just as watching violence on TV may inure us to real violence, does laughing at insults make us blind to the real thing? Is that why we want to pretend that some of the reports of rape and assault by people we like just didn’t happen? If you dress well and have money, do you get away with behaving badly? We laugh when Amanda breaks a record (remember those?) over Elyot’s head — but what if it had been the whiskey bottle? They trash the room and leave the mess for others to clean up.

Applying these questions to any work of humor can come across as humorless — but sometimes we need to look a bit deeper into what it is that makes us laugh about a serious situation.

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