A Smashing Private Lives at Shakespeare and Company

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Dana Harrison (Amanda) and David Joseph (Elyot) in Noël Coward’s Private Lives. Photo Kevin Sprague.
Dana Harrison (Amanda) and David Joseph (Elyot) in Noël Coward’s Private Lives. Photo Kevin Sprague. 


Noël Coward’s Private Lives

Shakespeare and Company
February 14–March 30
Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre

directed by Tony Simotes

Sybil Chase – Annie Considine
Elyot Chase – David Joseph
Amanda Prynne – Dana Harrison
Victor Prynne – Adam Huff
Louise – Elizabeth ‘Lily’ Cardaropoli

After my all-too-common last minute arrival, I had no opportunity to read Tony Simotes’ wise note in the program until the intermission. When I did, I struck a chord with thoughts that had been coming to me about Noël Coward since feeling his very large presence in Sir Donald and Marc Sinden’s wonderful series of documentaries about the theaters of London’s West End: his plays, as ephemeral as they claim to be, keep coming back, and have turned into classics under our noses, so to speak. Beneath the electric language and constantly amusing repartee, which in themselves have proven surprisingly durable, the basic themes that concern us all—attraction, love, loyalty, fidelity, convention and life, youth and maturity, and (although not in Private Lives) aging. Truth is, Coward, with his insistence that his gifts consisted of no more than “a talent to amuse,” was his own worst detractor.

As Tony Simotes said: “We discovered that whether he knew it or not he created a world on stage that was as layered and complicated as our human psyche when romance is the catalyst.” “We decided to look anew at what we all believed was the ‘Coward Style’ so prevalent in this play. […] I personally love to be in a place of not knowing. […]This wonderful cast went with me to discover the intimate details of what Coward implied in his private life and how that all played out  in creating this truly modern text that still feels as fresh and provocative as in did in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.”

“Letting a play work on one” in this way is how one would work with any good play. No special treatment for a classic. Let the English professors do it their way. This production of Private Lives spoke for itself. Costumes and sets were of the period, as was the music (although perhaps a bit relentlessly Broadway), and not a trace of any abuse of the received “Coward Style;” the production seemed only fast, fresh, and as true to Coward as it was to life. It’s worth noting that Simotes and his cast dried the play out somewhat, having wrung out the occasional sentimentality which Coward himself allowed in Elyot’s confessions of his feelings. Humor took its place, and the lightness of Elyot’s and Amanda’s relationship was one of its many pleasures.

Apart from music and costumes, and a small display of dresses of the 1930s in the lobby, that was largely the extent of the production’s stress on the plays rootedness in its time. Treating Coward’s plays as period pieces was a vice that crept in to performance tradition in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when that became fashionable in British television and film and on the stage. If you look at clips or full productions of the time period details are everywhere, but, if the performance is a good one, you forget that soon enough. Coward’s characters, even in our age when we have no-fault divorce, women (and men) use profanity more readily, received pronunciation has become a rarity, and physical abuse in marriage is not as potent a laugh-getter as it once was, are a fresh for us today as when they were first minted, even though, today Elyot and Amanda might well betake themselves to a couples therapy group, there to be bored into better behavior. That is not what the actors have to work at.

Coward’s structure is simplicity itself. We first meet the principal characters on the terrace of a hotel in France, on which two separate rooms look out. Elyot Chase is about to begin a honeymoon with his new wife, Sybil. We learn that he has been married before, to one Amanda. Next door we find the Prynnes, also about to begin theirs, Victor and the said Amanda. The separate and successive scenes between the couples echo each other responsively, like balls striking the walls of a squash court, until finally Elyot and Amanda meet, after they have quarrelled with their new spouses. The are immediately and powerfully drawn to one another, and over the course of lightning reminiscences, jealousies, and regrets—with Elyot as the primary instigator, they are off to Paris together. The Second Act shows one of Amanda and Elyot’s intimate evenings together in her Paris flat. They pass pretty much every evening like this, needing nothing from outside…and they stimulate each other with enough emotional bumps and scratches, with their reminiscing, rehashing old jealousies, questioning, ultimately their truly narcissistic fascination with their relationship, that they really haven’t energy for anything else. They know their tendency to bicker endlessly leads inevitably to more serious fighting, and they agree to use a code phrase to call a time out. Of course this breaks down, and the act ends with blows, overturned furniture, a struggle on the floor, and departure to separate bedrooms. Act Three, as you might expect, shows the morning after in the same sitting room. Sybil and Victor arrive to straighten things out, that is, to agree on a plan for divorces, and find their errant spouses walking separately out the door with suitcases. Amanda tries “to behave exquisitely,” but to no avail, and the fighting begins again, this time ultimately between Sybil and Victor. After several minutes of amazed gawking, Amanda and Elyot leave together, presumably on the world tour they have been talking about.

Simotes set the proceedings off at a rapid clip. The energy of the banter and its relatively high key never let up until the tender moments at the end of Act One, when Elyot and Amanda realize they love each other still. Only then does the tempo slow and quieter, gentler sounds prevail. The pace slackens, appropriately, and the vivid energy deflates, as Sybil and Victor, look confusedly for Amanda and Victor, and finally decide to share the abandoned cocktails on the terrace. Acts Two and Three follow suite in their controlled tempo and energy. If nothing else, this production is a tour de force in the management of these qualities. The cast throw themselves wholeheartedly, with full command of drawing room diction and inflection, into Tony Simotes shaping of the play, and by the second and third acts were playing off one another like brilliant jazz musicians. The chemistry that fueled this was between Dana Harrison (Amanda) and David Joseph (Elyot) and the other that was beginning to form, Annie Considine (Sybil) and Adam Huff (Victor), and in Act One we only see it begin to form, for one couple anew, and for the other again, after five years’ divorce. And this is most touchingly managed by the actors.

Annie Considine (Sybil) and Adam Huff (Victor) in Private Lives. Photo Kenin Sprague.
Annie Considine (Sybil) and Adam Huff (Victor) in Private Lives. Photo Kenin Sprague. 

David Joseph was an impish Elyot, who seemed to have fun no matter what he was doing, with just enough weight to make his love for Amanda and the pain of his loneliness without her ring true. Dana Harrison’s Amanda was both stylish and from the heart, a little edgy and active. The couple managed their rapid, interactive mood swings like top tennis players. Adam Huff was an appropriately stuffy Victor, just intelligent enough to stand up for himself a little, although basically lost amidst Amanda’s and Elyot’s antics. His “masterful” attempt to do the right thing in Act III seemed suitably absurd, and he won our sympathy. Annie Considine’s Sybil was one of those proper young Englishwomen, who although basically dense as the London fogs of yore, manages to survive with poise and masses of pancake makeup. Elizabeth ‘Lily’ Cardaropoli gave us a treasurable cameo in the almost-silent role of Louise the housemaid. She managed to communicate almost and entire subplot with her eyes and body. Her movements and mannerisms were a perfect sketch of her nationality and class, without being in the least caricatural. Chapeau bas to this virtuosic, terrifically funny—and totally winning—cast. The audience’s laughter followed their business so closely that they seemed part of the show. How’s that for audience engagement?

In our (mostly) frigid Berkshire winters Shakespeare and Company’s annual off-season show is usually the most effective source of warmth. Tony Simotes’ production of Private Lives was such a brilliant display of taste and craft that it seemed a special gift for enthusiasts and colleagues as well as the general public, who almost filled the house last Sunday afternoon.

Only two performances left. Do go…

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