Champagne flutes and brandy snifters abound. A deliciously dressed pair of erudite exes trade cutting bon mots. The surroundings drip Deco decadence. Make no mistake: You have entered the world of Noël Coward, as realized in Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s sparkling staging of Private Lives.
Sparkling and sharp, that is. Coward himself may have regarded his 1930 play as a trifle, calling it “the lightest of light comedy,” but the manicured surface belies a prickly undercurrent. The rekindled love affair between Elyot Chase (Matthew Floyd Miller) and Amanda Prynne (Eleanor Handley)—which ignites five years after their initial divorce, while each is on honeymoon in the French Riviera with a new spouse—still feels delectable and daring close to 90 years after it premiered.
Romance and rage
Yet under Dennis Razze’s piquant direction, the audience never loses sight of the combustible, dangerous side to their passionate reconciliation. Love isn’t always lovelier the second time around.
This is a couple who are just as likely to be found smashing each other to bits as they are to be smooching, after all. After they abscond to their love nest in Paris, which set designer Roman Tatarowicz renders with precise period detail, the purely animalistic element of their courtship takes over, mixing romance and rage.
The second act culminates with a blowout brawl that, as staged by fight director J. Alex Cordaro and choreographer Stephen Casey, gets to the heart of this tumultuous pair’s relationship. It is at once thrilling and unsettling as it rises above the expectations of farcical stage slapping.
This shows a smart approach to business that might be considered problematic by today’s standards. (Elsewhere, Elyot remarks that “some women should be struck regularly, like gongs.”) It does not romanticize the violence the couple inflicts on each other, and it suggests the incompatibility at the root of their permanently rocky relationship. Miller and Handley do their part by resisting hoary characterizations and presenting two people who often cannot understand their gravitational pull toward each other.
Style to burn
The casting of these two actors, both slightly older than Coward’s script specifies, is another wise choice. It adds a poignancy to their finding each other again, well into middle age, in the moments when Elyot and Amanda overcome their bad habits and just enjoy each other. It also amplifies their boorish behavior. Shouldn’t they know better by now? Apparently, wisdom doesn’t always grow from experience.
Both actors exude the requisite sense of class so central to successful Coward assumptions, with plummy accents that wrap around each witty line. Costumed by Sarah Cubbage, Miller cuts a dashing figure in dinner jackets and silk pajamas, while Handley looks positively Grecian in a sleek column dress. Sir Noël couldn’t have dreamed up a more appropriate pair.
The entire production is cast from strength. Festival stalwart Luigi Sottile, usually seen in romantic leads like Troilus or the title character of Shakespeare in Love, adapts nicely to Amanda’s priggish new husband Victor. Talley Gore manages the dumbfounded comedy of Elyot’s second wife, Sibyl. Taylor Congdon, a DeSales University student, is witty as the exasperated Parisian maid Louise, though her French is distractingly unaccented.
This Private Lives has style to burn, and it proves a fine way to spend a summer night. Commendably, though, it refuses to linger on the surface. The beautiful and the monstrous exist side by side.
What, When, Where
Private Lives. By Noël Coward, directed by Dennis Razze. Through August 4, 2019, at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley, PA. (610) 282-WILL or pashakespeare.org.
The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival campus is fully accessible, with ample designated accessible parking. ADA-compliant seating can be purchased online or by calling the box office. The 2pm performance of Private Lives on Saturday, July 27, 2019 will be open-captioned and audio-described.