REVIEW: Rediscovering all that sparkles in Coward’s ‘Private Lives.’

James Waterston and Bianca Amato. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

James Waterston and Bianca Amato. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

It is unlikely that anyone will ever be able to understand the wonderful turbulence of love — the extremes from euphoria to depression; happiness to anger, the sublime and the absurd. Nowhere is this more eloquently expressed than in Noel Coward’s comedy of manners, “Private Lives.” Coward had a witty, acerbic understanding of this irrational emotion.

Most people have seen “Private Lives” as some time or another. It has been around for decades, but if you are dismissive and think you have seen it, the brilliant production of “Private Lives,” now at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, is something different — it may be the best thing since Coward and Gertrude Lawrence performed it the first time in 1930. Since there aren’t many people around who were alive to have seen it then (including me) you will have to indulge my hyperbole that this production is truly special.

The director Maria Aitken, a British actress who has, among other theatrical accomplishments, including an Olivier Award and a Tony Award, has reportedly played more Noel Coward heroines than any other actress — and it shows. She deftly controls every aspect of acerbic, madcap Coward dialogue. Coward wrote the play while suffering from the flu in Shanghai in 1929. That is an amazing feat, but Coward was also a man of multiple talents and was himself an actor. He actually wrote the lead role for himself and for his life-long friend, the legendary actress, Gertrude Lawrence.

Private Lives is a satire of a marriage/remarriage of two frivolous early 20th-century individuals who seem to have a limitless income from somewhere, but it certainly doesn’t come from work, and they are dedicated to living for comfort and pleasure. The play has little or no plot to speak of, but the plot is unnecessary when the actors have such sophisticated, smart dialogue to toss about.

The play opens in the French, seaside resort of Deauville on adjoining balconies of a hotel, elegant in the grandeur of Allen Moyer’s set. There are two couples who have traveled to the seaside for the first night of their separate honeymoons. The contrivance is that by some coincidence Elyot (James Waterston) is there with his younger, petite blonde new wife; while in the adjoining suite are Amanda (Bianca Amato) and her new husband, a dull, pompous man. Of course, Elyot and Amanda were once married to each other and have been divorced for some five years.

What is coming is not unexpected — they are still angry and quarrelsome with each other, but the turbulent fires of love still burn. (In the background an orchestra frequently plays a piece of music that has meaning for them. The music is a song that Coward also wrote for his show.) They run off from their respective wedding nights to a smartly decorated flat in Paris for an unconventional indulgence of adultery.

When we come upon Amanda and Elyot, they are in colorful silken pajamas, enjoying their renewed dalliance, blissfully smoking and drinking, from that era when smoking and drinking was sophisticated. Amato inhabits Amanda with an irresistible, languidly sexy presence. She is the modern woman of her era, beautifully dressed by Candice Donnelly, whose costumes skillfully reflect the 1920s. Elyot can’t help himself. He knows that there is such frustrating volubility about their relationship and Waterston handles the wild mood swings with aplomb. The two of them are combative lovers and that may in the end be what attracts them so.

Autumn Hurbert as Sibyl, the petite, pretty blonde left unceremoniously on her wedding night, and Jeremy Webb as Victor, Amanda’s boring, pompous new husband, also abandoned on his wedding night, are cleverly defined characters. Hurbert and Webb make them sympathetic — not pathetic — confused and angry about what has happened. But they will move on, better off away from Amanda and Elyot’s combat zone of love.

“Private Lives” runs for two and a half hours with two intermissions, but as we are so caught up with the delightful wit and wisdom of Coward and the artistry of a stellar cast, the show is over before we realize it or want it to be.

Private Lives” continues through July 13, 2014 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW. Tickets start at $20 and are available at 877-487-8849 and online here.

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