Private Lives at Shakespeare & Company

Having a Laugh in the Dead of Winter

By: - Feb 23, 2014

Life Life Life Life Life Life

Private Lives
By Sir Noël Peirce Coward

Directed by Tony Simotes
Sets, Patrick Brennan; Costumes, Govane Lohbauer; Lighting, James Bilnoski; Sound, Carmen-Maria Mandley; Stage Manager, Maegan Passafume.
Cast: Elizabeth ‘Lily” Cardaropoli (Louise), Annie Considine (Sybil Chase), Dana Harrison (Amanda Prynee), Adam Huff (Victor Prynne), David Joseph (Elyot Chase)
Shakespeare & Company
Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre
February 14 through March 30, 2014

Done properly a production of Sir Noël Peirce Coward’s (16 December 1899 – 26 March 1973) enduring 1930 comedy, Private Lives, should be as sparkling, intoxicating and effervescent as the champagne consumed by two couples celebrating their honeymoon, improbably on adjoining balconies overlooking the Riviera.

This evening felt like a labored American version of an outtake of our ever more enervating weekly overdose of the self absorbed and privileged British aristocracy in the oddly popular PBS series Downton Abbey. With a major difference that at least Downton’s upper crust accents and arch demeanor are thoroughly authentic.

Particularly in the first act the players were in urgent need of a dialect coach to master the light in the loafers, quick and crisp wit of Coward’s deliciously wicked British dialogue. Mostly the actors struggled to get the lines out and establish rapport with the audience.

Other than an obnoxious shrill fan next to me, who laughed in all the right places, this response was too intermittent. A game audience strove to embrace an ensemble of rich Brits who, by definition, are better than us.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald who rubbed elbows with the upper crust across the pond put it “The rich are different from you and me.”

True, but for most of us the difference and resultant gap is so formidable that it’s difficult to give a fig about them. Other than pursue the decadent good life they don’t really do anything. An idle mind is indeed the devil’s workshop.

By the end of an admittedly entertaining evening, particularly the crisply staged fight scene, we found little redeeming social and humanistic value in utterly pampered, self indulgent characters. While amused, in no sense do I find my life enriched by an evening of Coward.

As with first Upstairs Downstairs and currently Downton Abbey we find more empathy for the servants than their dynastic masters. Here the French maid Louise, played with understated wit by Elizabeth ‘Lily’ Cardarpoli, is the only endearing character on stage.

In a Coward play getting the right look and style is essential. Here the company has done a terrific job with spiffy period costumes by Govane Lohbauer and well appointed sets by Patrick Brennan. The transition from the balcony in the first act and a French apartment in the compressed second act has been handled well. Although it seems they raided the prop shop of too much furniture for an over stuffed interior.

More than most plays casting is key to a successful Private Lives. It is essential to have a smarmy, slick, handsome and ruthless Elyot Chase. In looks David Joseph fares well but doesn’t quite reach the stature and charisma of a classic matinee idol. His ex, Amanda Prynne, must be as brisk and thin as a whip with a devastatingly sharp tongue.

As that uber rich bitch, the social climbing, utterly worthless American divorcee, Wallace Simpson later the Duchess of Windsor, put it, darling “One can never be too rich or too thin.”

Dana Harrison’s Amanda has all that in spades. Indeed she sets the bar in this production as by far its most Cowardly character. She is a veritable stick on which to drape the period costumes of Lohbauer. Although, entre nous, it is annoying that she is so shabbily coiffed. Throughout she has, well, a frightful bad hair day.

But her rival for Elyot’s romantic interest, the younger and petulant bride, doesn’t have a fighting chance to compete. As Sybil Chase the actor, Annie Considine, channels Shirley Temple at the end of her career as a cute child star. Lord knows why she has been coifed in out of control ringlet curls and ugly dresses stretched tight over an ample figure.

To get the right chemistry Sybil must hover between debutante and seductive coquette. Her demand for constant kisses, however, quickly becomes as annoying for us as for the distracted groom. Foolishly, she constantly brings up comparisons to Amanda. It just telegraphs her lack of sophistication and security. Even without the surprise appearance of Amanda on the adjoining balcony Sybil’s marriage is stillborn.

Of the four honeymooners Adam Huff is most convincing as Victor Prynne the rather solid second husband of Amanda. If she married Elyot, a drunk and wife beater, out of pure passion, Victor appears to be the grounded, rich, attentive, stodgy second husband who adores her and is prepared to cater to her every whim. I rather liked him. A weekend of shooting or riding to the hounds at his country seat would be an entirely pleasant diversion.

The rocky first act struggles to establish the characters with their foundering dialogue. This is compounded by timing miscues and prop accidents. Things get dropped and broken. There is ad lib to get back on track.

By the second act, however, it’s full tilt boogie. The actors are comfortably settled and letting their rumpled hair down. We were caught up in the increasing mayhem. There was a lot more laughter as the audience was now fully in sync with the ever more out of control actors behaving rather badly.

However frothy and amusing we are struck by how utterly absurd are their Private Lives.

Abandoning their new spouses to fend for themselves Elyot and Amanda are enjoying the guilty pleasure of eloping and living in sin. He points out, with one of the best laughs of the evening, that were they Catholics they would still be married. Because, prior to Henry VIII, Brits did not get divorced. But they’re not, Catholics that is, and as such are indeed, divorced and enjoying, at least momentarily, guilty pleasure.

Have you ever dated an ex? Then you will recognize the syndrome. There is that initial flush of renewed physical passion. In this case they haven’t left the apartment with three days of cocktails, sucking face and non stop shagging.

In an accelerated fast forward the problems that split them apart resurface with a vengeance. This time, however, they have made a pact not to bicker and argue. When that happens there’s a kill word and automatic time out. But soon that doesn’t work.

After just “three small brandies” he’s drunk and abusive. Yet again he slaps her. This is the aspect of the play that’s dated and hard to swallow. Spousal abuse is simply unacceptable.

But director Tony Simotes, known for his fight choreography, has turned this into a truly hilarious romp. We were on the edge of our seats catching each outrageous detail. For this the actors/ matadors deserve the ears and tail.

Then the jilted honeymooners arrive and catch them in the act. The play just accelerates to its madcap over the top finale.

In the midst of the madness the maid serves breakfast. She also efficiently tidies up after the brawl has made a mess of the apartment. This is done with knowing Gallic flair. We need her for a touch of balance in all the mishegoss.

This comic confection in the dead of winter should play well in the Berkshires. Among the upper strata of the local population there are indeed sufficient ersatz royals rather inclined to identify with the vacuous chatter, foibles and wit of these Private Lives.