Many of the Western plays of the 1930's were intended to be escapes from the grim realities of the decade. Europe and the United States were attempting to forget one war while heading inevitably toward another. Economic crisis had crippled a nation. Noel Coward's Private Lives succeeds at entertaining, while still providing a compelling lens into gender and class. His comedy of conflict examines the changing position of women in the years leading up to the Second World War and skewers the decadence of the upper class. The Guthrie Theater's production of Private Lives captures all that is wonderful and smart about Coward's play.
The play opens on the twin balconies at a resort in seaside France. Elyot (Stephen Pelinski) and Sybil (Tracey Maloney) have recently arrived to celebrate their honeymoon. What first seems like the coy banter of a newlyweds soon betrays itself as the initial insecure symptoms of doomed marriage. Sybil's primary concern is Elyot's previous marriage to Amanda (Veanne Cox), a woman of mythical mercurialness.
When Elyot and Sybil go inside to dress for dinner, a second couple arrives. It quickly becomes clear that Amanda has arrived with her new husband, Victor (Kris L. Nelson). Their interactions are as fraught as those of Elyot and Sybil. Elyot and Amanda treat their spouses with the impatience and tolerance of parents tending to nuisance children. The pivot of the first scene occurs when Elyot and Amanda run into each other on the balconies.
Director Peter Rothstein has assembled a supremely talented cast. The actors' understanding of Coward's script is evident and their comic timing nearly flawless. Coward's verbal pyrotechnics are handled with elegance and virtuosity.
What can easily be missed in the production is the exceptional movement preparation that informs the performances. I was struck by Marela Lorca and Peter Moore's coaching of the actors. As, respectively, movement coach and fight director, Lorca and Moore provide a critical physical direction that gives a tremendous life to the production. In particular, pay close attention to Elyot and Amanda's circling of each other as they fight in the Paris apartment. The choreography is splendid.
Amanda challenges the expectation of a 'respectable' woman without ever becoming 'unrespectable.' Some of this is a result of the luxury that money provides. But her ability to take multiple lovers following her divorce from Elyot with the consequences seeming only to be Elyot's jealousy indicates a sexual empowerment elusive and rare earlier in the century. Amanda might represent a new mode of contemporary woman - the only other option that Coward provides us is that of the sycophantic Sybil and even she is transformed.
This production of Coward's Private Lives is a page turner of a play, wonderfully acted and superbly directed. The play may even function - at least for a couple of hours - as an anodyne during our own days of war and economic crisis.