BWW Review: PRIVATE LIVES Proudly Preens at Main Street Theater
PRIVATE LIVES at Main Street Theater is an elegant "champagne soaked" divorce comedy from the '30s. It makes for perfect light summer fare, and continues an interesting theme for the MST company from their last production of RELATIVELY SPEAKING. Like the previous show of the season this work represents the changing landscapes of men, women, and marriage. The director has decided to look at the more giggle-worthy elements of PRIVATE LIVES, and has avoided some of the darker implications of this Noel Coward classic. Audiences should eat this one up like a buttered brioche with coffee the morning after a sordid affair.
PRIVATE LIVES is about a divorced couple named Elyot and Amanda who have both just remarried and are on the first night of their respective honeymoons. Unluckily for these two they have booked elegant suites with adjoining balconies. They accidentally meet up once again and sparks start flying once more. They end up running away together! The bad news is love and passion have a flip side. These two fight all too well, and it won't take long before the pangs of passion give way to the petty endless bickering that drove them apart in the first place. Oh and did I mention their husband and wife are bound to find them all too soon?
Noel Coward defined the modern dandy when PRIVATE LIVES premiered back in 1930. He was the master of refined and over the top moneyed manners including dressing gowns and long cigarette filters. He was hiding the truth that he was gay, but all the witty diaolgue and over the top obsession with luxury gave hime away to the knowing eye. PRIVATE LIVES is a fantasy of money, smarts, and droll exchanges. It was Noel's dreams writ large, and audiences fell in love when it premiered. PRIVATE LIVES has remained a standard of the stage with names like Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Alan Rickman, Kim Cattrall, and Joan Collins all mounting productions at one time or another.
Main Street Theater updates the show a bit, and removes some of the more troubling elements for modern audiences. The constant smoking present in the play is abated by Elyot's constant loss of his lighter. The striking of women is still there (something not shocking back in the day), but it is done as playfully as they can and the women are allowed to hit back. Director Claire Hart-Palumbo emphasizes a strong sense of physical comedy to underscore the witty dialogue and give the play a much lighter feel than it may have under different circumstances. She is wisely making the work seem more effervescent than it ever has been.
The way Hart-Palumbo achieves this is in her casting. The role of Amanda for Main Street Theater is played by Elizabeth Marshall Black. She is a very physical actress known for her skill with slapstick style comedy. This role presents her with the challenge to marry her Lucille Ball brand of funny with something more elevated in the witty dialogue. She rises to the occasion beautifully, and proves she can be a master of both the pratfall and the verbal bombshell. In contrast Alan Brincks brings something new to the role of Elyot. Noel Coward originated the part, and it is often played prissy, fussy, and somewhat mincing. Mr. Brincks brings his own sense of masculinity and marries it to Coward's effete words and creates a new persona. You could almost label it the "bro dandy" in that he brings a modern male sensibility to this character. He's far more physical, and we can believe his lady killer status all too easily. It's fun to watch these two incredibly tall physical people spar with both words and banging cutlery. The pair make a convincing Amanda and Elyot, and they carry the show with a quick clip and a firm handle on all aspects of their craft.
Supporting them as the put upon spouses are Joel F. Grothe and Skyler Sinclair. They actually keep these characters pretty much as intended, and do not break the Coward mold too much. Grothe remains painfully English and sports a stiff upper lip throughout until the right moment for his character to implode. He's the calming voice and a nice counterpoint to the hysteria of the rest of the cast. You almost feel sorry for him caught in this maelstrom. Sinclair on the other hand is the typical 1930s damsel in distress - a whiner, a crier, and a master manipulator when she need be. The actress does a great job of keeping all of this comedic and funny rather than grating. Rebecca Greene Udden has the funniest cameo I have seen this year as Louise the French maid. She's a riot!
Technically PRIVATE LIVES impresses as well. The sets are elegant and executed to allow the show to be presented in the round. The team makes the transition seamlessly go from glitzy hotel balcony to a well-appointed French flat with surprising ease during quick intermissions. Lighting is on point to keep the tone. Rebecca Greene Udden's costumes are elegant and add to the sophistication of the presentation throughout the evening. She gets the Noel Coward look down pat, no small achievement for a company in the Rice Village of Houston to pull off. The accent work done by dialect coach Carolyn Johnson is more subtle than expected, and it works well to keep things clear and simple.
All in all PRIVATE LIVES from Main Street Theater is perfect summer fare, a refreshingly light cocktail of sugary silly married with urbane sophistication. It remains the ultimate fantasy of how the rich split up, come back together, and fight with words that cut and amuse all at once. It upholds that idea of the dandy and the dame, and even makes interesting statements about how men and women relate today. Main Street updates this show nicely, and does right by the legacy of Coward simultaneously. It remains a testament that few of us are completely normal really deep down in our private lives. It's the ultimate showdown of the bro dandy and the towering dame.
PRIVATE LIVES runs through August 11th at Main Street Theater in Rice Village. The show is three acts with two intermissions with each act running between thirty and forty-five minutes. Tickets can be acquired through the Main Street Theater web site at http://www.mainstreettheater.com/ . You can also call the box office at (713) 524-6706.