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Coward’s ‘Private Lives’ at the Lantern (2nd review)BY: Jackie Atkins 12.17.2011
Unlike Edward Albee, who heaped pity and abuse on two dysfunctional married couples, Noël Coward’s Private Lives pokes fun at them— and at us for judging them.
Private Lives. By Noël Coward; Kathryn MacMillan directed. Lantern Theater Co. production through January 8, 2012 at St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow St. (215) 829-0395 or www.lanterntheater.org.
Who’s afraid of Noël Coward?JACKIE ATKINS
It’s amazing how such a politically incorrect play like Private Lives can survive unscathed in a politically correct society like ours. What, you ask yourself, stands between a script that suggests “certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs” and a global petition on Facebook demanding the death and dismemberment of the playwright and producers?
The answer, of course, is the endurance of Noël Coward. Still, Private Lives, now more than 80 years old, is a concession to another era’s standards.
Lantern Theater’s production makes no apologies for the story line, nor does it try to soften the impact of the physical fighting of the doomed star-crossed lovers, Elyot and Amanda. This refusal to kowtow to public opinion renders the production deliciously wicked, much as Coward intended.
Suave, debonair, persuasive Elyot Chase (Ben Dibble) is honeymooning on the coast of Deauville, France, with his new wife, the winsome, unadventurous and much younger Sibyl (K.O. Del Marcelle). All seems blissful except for Sibyl’s annoying habit of asking Elyot about his ex-wife, the clever, witty, broad-minded, unconventional Amanda (Geneviève Perrier).
Next door, on an adjoining balcony, another pair of honeymooners, take in the sights. It’s none other than Amanda and her new spouse, a priggish, pedantic, pompous hunk named Victor Prynne (Leonard Haas). Amanda is aggravated with Victor’s exasperating curiosity about her former husband, Elyot. When Elyot and Amanda are left alone on the balcony waiting for their new partners to get ready for dinner, they discover one another and promptly ditch their respective mates and head to Paris.
If Elyot and Amanda have one thing common, it’s their ability to laugh in the face of convention. Neither one of them can think beyond their own noses— a selfish attitude each finds appealing in the other (and we in them).
If Albee had a sense of humor
I’ve always thought that Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a Private Lives without a sense of humor. Albee asks us to pity Martha and George; Coward pokes fun at Elyot and Amanda— and, by extension, at us for judging them. What transpires behind closed doors, he seems to remind us, is after all a private matter (Coward’s response, perhaps, to the whispers about his own homosexuality).
Both the staging by Meghan Jones and the costumes by Mark Mariani more than adequately create the urbane ambience of a more sophisticated age (the original drama was produced in 1930). It helps that the infamous fight scenes between the dueling ex-lovers are brilliantly choreographed by director Kathryn MacMillan.
The cast members wield their lines in stiff–upper-lipped manner, whether it be Del Marcelle’s baby doll whining at being betrayed on her honeymoon, Leonard Haas’s bewilderment over Amanda’s abandonment or Dibble’s and Perrier’s spotlessly timed verbal and physical sparring. Thanks to this devotion to the British uppercrust dialogue, the production becomes a testimony to Coward’s ability to write a comedy of manners, rather than a wrenching drama of broken hearts and warped lives. It also makes for a fun evening.♦
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