Review: PRIVATE LIVES at Arizona Theatre Company

The production runs through May 28 at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix .

By: May. 15, 2023
Review: PRIVATE LIVES at Arizona Theatre Company
Enter Your Email to Unlock This Article

Plus, get the best of BroadwayWorld delivered to your inbox, and unlimited access to our editorial content across the globe.

Existing user? Just click login.

Guest Contributor David Appleford tells it like it is in this critical review of Arizona Theatre Company's adaptation of Noël Coward's PRIVATE LIVES.

When a play outlives its author and its popularity continues to increase, the original work soon becomes accessible to a new, creative interpretation, one made all the more open to broad re-invention if the play itself now remains in the public domain.

Performing until May 28 at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix is a re-imagined, Latin-flavored Arizona Theatre Company production of the hugely popular 1931 Noël Coward comedy, PRIVATE LIVES, directed by KJ Sanchez.

As originally presented, British high-society divorced couple Elyot (Hugo E. Carbajal) and Amanda (Sarita Ocón) accidentally meet while on honeymoon in Paris with their new partners, Sibyl (Briana J Resa) and Victor (Brady Morales-Woolery).

With all the coincidences of a Dickens narrative, the two honeymooning couples just happen to share the same hotel room veranda. Once divorcees Elyot and Amanda discover each other again, their love is suddenly and uncontrollably inflamed. Unable to control their feelings or keep their hands to themselves, they selfishly tip-toe out of the hotel and flee to Amanda's Parisian apartment, leaving their new spouses behind.

That's the original setting. Under Sanchez's new direction, the 1931 veranda in Paris becomes the balcony to a hotel in Mar Del Plata, Argentina, while Amanda's flat in Paris becomes a present-day, modern apartment in Jose Ignacio, Uruguay.

Running for approximately two hours, including intermission, this new production begins well with a strong Act One. The moment when Amanda realizes that the handsome guy in the tux on the other side of the veranda divide is her ex is priceless. However, Acts Two and Three that follow after the Intermission are another matter.

At the opening, when tango-infused hotel music is heard wafting up from the unseen hotel courtyard below to the veranda above, you know immediately that this production of PRIVATE LIVES is not to be the more familiar Noël Coward-styled British comedy of high-society fashions and social manners. The character names remain the same, as does most of Coward's witty dialog, yet the whole affair is transposed to the other side of the world, where fiery passions, verbal fencing, and tempers flare at the drop of a hat, altering not only the play's structure but the very essence of what made the comedy popular in the first place.

Transposing the play to a different world, a different culture isn't as simple as altering the setting or the accents. Every action a character makes, every object or prop he or she handles in the process requires a specific equivalent. In the case of PRIVATE LIVES, the drawback for some audience members, particularly those familiar with Coward's work as a playwright, composer, author, lyricist, and actor, is concentrating more on newly interpreted directorial gimmicks that incorporate the change of cultures while losing focus of the play itself.

Playwright Coward was a blistering social satirist. He was born into a lower, middle-class London family, but through wit, intelligence, and a lot of talent, he was accepted and socialized among much of Britain's high society. It's because of his more humble beginnings, he could better view the petty habits and games of Mayfair upper-class societies, which he skewered in his comedies with a surgeon's precision.

The way director Sanchez has handled some of the more challenging cultural differences between Coward's work and her re-imagined version is to simply cut it. Gone is the play's fifth character, the loyal French maid, Louise, which immediately eliminates the comedic language barrier issue between the play's protagonists and the French. The character equivalent in Argentina would presumably speak Spanish, the same as Amanda and Elyot, so any language confusion between them would be redundant.

Gone is the important grand piano in Amanda's apartment, so all references to the instrument plus the actual playing of the keyboards in Act Two are scrapped. Plus, also gone is Coward's most popular hit of his musical career, Someday I'll Find You, usually sung by Amanda in Act One.

But what's truly curious about the Pacific crossover is the sense of time. Like the original, the setting at the hotel for Act One is 1931. Amanda even passes a remark of a sister who was stillborn in 1902 supporting the idea that all four characters are in their early thirties. Yet, what follows when we become open to the private lives of these characters in the following two acts, as opposed to the public image they like to give in the play's first act, is not the traditional 'One Day Later' in Amanda's apartment for Act Two in Paris, or 'One More Day Later' for Act Three in the same place, but a leap from 1931 in Argentina to modern-day Uruguay. What exactly are we supposed to draw from having these 1930s characters meet up again in present-day Uruguay? That's ninety-two years later. They're not latter-day equivalents, they're still the same people.

Giving those final two acts a curious modern-day setting works against everything achieved in Act One. While the sound of the hotel band supplied atmosphere and gave the new South American setting a promising potential, the lack of street noise traditionally heard through the open windows of Amanda's present-day apartment in Act Two soon creates a feeling of emptiness. The windows look permanently sealed, and there's no view of the outside world. It's as if both we and the characters are cut off from the real Uruguay and not a part of any place in particular, enhanced further by the abstract change of lighting within the window frames - when tempers flare, things go from a foggy white to a crimson red.

A wireless phone may also feel initially odd, but it's the stereo turntable with those eighties-looking living room speakers with accompanying vinyls that make the setting look and feel odder still. In Coward's script, Amanda possesses a 1930's gramophone player with those large 78 rpm's. Because of the brittle shellac material used to make those early recordings, when she attacks Elyot during a fierce fight, she smashes a disc in pieces over his head, followed by a violent slap across her face from Elyot in retaliation. A current London revival of the play even warns patrons sitting in the front two rows to be wary of flying shards of shellac during the scene. In this ATC production, Amanda angrily throws a long-playing album at Elyot, but the album simply falls flat on the floor with no impact, just a dull thud. It's a feeling many in the audience may feel about the whole act.

In a more general sense, a Noël Coward comedy works largely on the quality of the actors and their ability to deliver Coward's verbally sophisticated sparing. While Briana J Resa and Brady Morales-Woolery have the more underdeveloped secondary roles - even Coward himself has said that PRIVATE LIVES is a "reasonably well-constructed duologue for two, with a couple of extra puppets thrown in to assist the plot" - all four performers rise to the comedic levels required, particularly Sarita Ocón who, from her initial entrance to the final fade, elevates the production with the kind of energy required to make her Amanda burst with life.

However, what may be lost in translation for those new to Coward and his stylized construction of the upper-classes bickering in a drawing room is the underlying satirical theme of the privileged, their hypocrisies, and their self-indulgent values. Without recognizing them, the play for a first-timer may come across as something possessing nothing more than a thin plot with no development, and no real character motivation, just a lot of trivial chit-chat punctuated by fights, both verbal and physical.

Arizona Theatre Company ~ ~ 222 E Monroe St, Phoenix, AZ ~ Box office: 1-833-ATC-SEAT (1-800-282-7328)

Venue: Herberger Theater Center ~ 22 E Monroe St, Phoenix, AZ ~ ~ 602-254-7399

Poster credit to ATC


To post a comment, you must register and login.