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Theater Review: “Private Lives” at Shakespeare Theatre

Noël Coward’s comedy of manners gets a sparkling staging by Maria Aitken.

James Waterston as Elyot and Bianca Amato as Amanda in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. Photograph by Scott Suchman

Break out the Champagne and foie gras, everyone—it’s time to celebrate the effervescent revival of Noël Coward’s Private Lives at Shakespeare Theatre. 

Private Lives  is a difficult play to do well and an easy one to ruin. An ill-matched cast or heavy-handed director can drain the piece of its fizz and leave it flopping on the stage like a just-caught trout. Actress-turned-director (and Royal Shakespeare Company veteran) Maria Aitken has done a creditable job of staging this classic, and that is not to damn with faint praise. It means that she and her uniformly crackerjack cast get the anti-romantic, love-is-ridiculous, isn’t-it-nice-to-be-rich, isn’t-respectability-boring vibe of Coward’s 1930 hit, and they run with it. It takes a while for the effervescence to get bubbling, though, and some physical aspects of the production look a little drab by lavish Shakespeare Theatre standards. (This is a remount of a 2012 production from the Huntington Theatre in Boston). But once Private Lives  finally breaks out of the gate, about ten minutes in, it’s a festival of glibness, glamour, and bad behavior.

The once-married couple at the center of the play—Elyot (James Waterston) and Amanda (Bianca Amato)—are unwittingly honeymooning with their new spouses at the same hotel on the French Riviera. Before the final curtain, they will have abandoned their new partners, ensconced themselves in Amanda’s Paris flat, bickered to the point of coming to blows (despite their use of a “safe” phrase to stop arguments before they escalate), made up romantically, and then fought again—victims of “this ludicrous, overbearing love of ours.” When finally their abandoned spouses arrive, the bickering resumes, but in wider patterns. Coward demonstrates that love is, indeed, a form of insanity. 

The lights come up on adjoining balconies, framed by pinkish arches and a slice of mansard roof (set design by Allen Moyer). The distant sounds of ships on the Mediterranean barely intrude; the orchestra in the nearby casino comes in clearer. The two honeymoon couples, still unaware of one another, emerge sequentially for pre-dinner flirtation and cocktails. First, the witty, tuxedoed Elyot and his much younger, wholly conventional bride, Sybil (Autumn Hurlbert), blonde and perky in a floral print with ruffles. (The character-perfect costumes are by Candice Donnelly). We learn that Elyot’s tempestuous marriage to Amanda was painful and that it was all Amanda’s fault. When Elyot and Sybil exit, Amanda and Victor (Jeremy Webb) wander onto their balcony—she a brunette sophisticate in a slinky dressing gown, he a staid chap in a tweed suit. From their chatter we learn Elyot was a philandering beast and the divorce was all his fault. Amanda concedes to her new spouse that even as a young woman, she had a heart “jagged with sophistication,” but that now she wants steadiness with a dependable man. 

Not for long, though. When Elyot and Amanda reemerge minus their mates for a quiet cigarette and a drink, the strains of their old love song waft up—“Someday I’ll Find You,” by Coward himself. Elyot hums it, Amanda hears him, and they turn in horror to find each other. Each claims to be happily remarried, but the old spark soon ignites. “I have the most extraordinary sensation of impending disaster,” says Elyot to Sybil after trying to convince her to check out and go somewhere else. Soon, he and Amanda have skipped out on their respective mates. 

Webb and Hurlbert make wonderful work of the ill-used Victor and Sybil—he a fellow with kind instincts but no imagination; she a spoiled child, but not without feelings. These are roles that can be thankless ones in lesser hands.

As the incendiary Elyot and Amanda, Waterston and Amato started off on opening night a little muted and tentative, but were soon aloft on Coward’s words. Waterston plays Elyot as equal parts puppy dog and rich, idle playboy. Amato’s Amanda is brainy, impulsive, and passionate. Both actors make their characters’ hair-trigger tempers comical yet truly problematic. Director Aitken, who has starred in many a Coward play herself, sees to it that all four actors speak Coward’s hyper-stylish dialogue and well-turned witticisms with ease and without stilted vowels, and she never lets them lose track of their characters’ hearts.

It is, in fact, the cast fully enabled with heart, humor and style that makes this Private Lives a public treat. 

Private Lives is at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre through July 13. Running time is two hours and 15 minutes, including two intermissions. Tickets ($40 to $100) are available online.