Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
"Private Lives" is one of the touchstone comedies of the Twentieth Century, a blend of high wit, urbane sexual sophistication (at least for the 1930's), expertly theatrical physical comedy and deliciously conceived characters that actors love to play. The Seattle Rep, in the middle of a difficult season under new artistic director David Esbjornson, brought in Gabriel Barre, a director celebrated for his skill with Noel Coward, to stage this show when the previously announced "Temple" (about animal-rights activist Temple Granden) was deemed too unfinished for production.
Gorgeously mounted on an extravagant set by Walt Spengler, with elegant and stylish costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy and luminous lighting by Howell Binkley, this production has mixed results dramatically. The first act is terrific, the best Noel Coward I've ever seen, while the second act loses something of its edge and still succeeds, but without the same brilliance and finesse. The actors are all very good, with Suzanne Bouchard as Amanda and Rob Breckenridge as Elyot earning their star-vehicle roles, while Nikki Coble as Sibyl and Allen Fitzpatrick as Victor make the mis-matched newlywed spouses amusing and distinct.
The problem is mostly directorial, and has to do with a loss of freshness when the comedy becomes physical, and an unbalanced chemistry between the two supporting characters. In the end, it feels like thoroughly professional work, but neither inspired nor particularly genuine. Laughs that are spontaneous in the first act feel obligatory in the second.
The familiar premise is that the once-married Elyot and Amanda meet again as they honeymoon with their new spouses, and find that they still have far more in common than they will ever have with their new partners. They sneak off together to Paris, where they find a kind of blissful marital detente, until the abandoned spouses return. In the end, they are seen sneaking out once again, while Sybil and Victor are literally at each other's throats.
There's something faintly reprehensible now about the once tres chic sophistication of these relationships, and some lines and elements are now quite uncomfortable: one racist joke, for example, and attitudes that make domestic violence far more acceptable than it should ever be. Still, the whole story is really just a useful circumstance for Coward's still charming and delightful wit, for lines perfectly formed and filled with intelligence and droll wisdom. Elyot and Amanda are two walking theatres of self-contained drama, kept slightly tipsy with cocktails and haute couture cynicism, endlessly amused by their elegant emotional combat and magnetic attraction.
Rob Breckenridge is a suave and charming cad, perfectly fitting his smart tux and "ravishing" dressing gowns. He embodies the period with all its presumed male dominance and amoral gamesmanship. Suzanne Bouchard has even greater power as a ferociously independent woman who blends brains and beauty with the skill of a master bartender mixing the perfect, potent Martini. The chemistry between these two is exactly right, and the director's stunning pace (especially in Act One) keeps everything light and effortless, with a grace that matches its articulate pleasure.
The unsuitable spouses have rather more limited roles. Poor Sibyl is a bright-eyed child overwhelmed by the harsh words spoken by her newly betrothed husband, and susceptible to a fife chorus of snorting toots when she weeps. Nikki Coble is a beautiful young thing, smart and vulnerable, and has just the right airiness and innocence for the role. Victor is a stuffy old trunk filled with balderdash and intellectual mothballs, and no match for Amanda's fierce personality. Allen Fitzpatrick certainly had the right drab, fuddy-duddy manner, and he appropriately lets Elyot dance circles around him. I found his performance a bit dull, however, and not in the ways that Victor is simply a dull man. There was just not much of interest in the character beyond the most superficial description. Then again, these are truly supporting roles. Sybil and Victor are simply the ancillary damage left by the heroic battles of Elyot and Amanda, and all of that is, of course, merely harmless amusement, a romantic caprice.
Where I think the second act (combining acts two and three) loses energy is in substituting outrageous physical action for the dramatic, interpersonal conflict of the first act. Of course, act two is written to move from unusual calm and benign accommodation to all-out destruction, with the room ending in a shambles. But what happens here is that we simply became too aware of the machinery: the hinged chaise, shattering glassware, breakable records, collapsing piano, all that stuff that soon became the purpose of the comedy. We’Äôre laughing (modestly) at the equipment, not at the people. And that leaves us impressed more than amused. The other problem, especially in the third act, is that Victor and Sybil never really find themselves drawn together, survivors on a creaky lifeboat, in a way that gets us to their resolution. There needs to be a relationship reversal here, and it has to be the result of two new, unsuitable people finding themselves inexplicably drawn together. It doesn't happen. As a result, the second act feels contrived and unaffecting, more like watching an amusement park than actually riding on the ferris wheel.
Nonetheless, "Private Lives" is still remarkably entertaining and this is a high-quality production featuring very talented actors working with a most amusing script. If you don't know the play, it's an excellent presentation. If you know it well, it could be an enjoyable chance to revisit some great roles, in an extremely handsome mounting. If you just want an entertaining evening, this will certainly provide that, and the elements I found wanting may not trouble you in the least. So sorry to quibble, Sybil.