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Review: PRIVATE LIVES at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre

Review: PRIVATE LIVES at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre

The production runs through August 27th at the Don Bluth Front Row Theatre in Scottsdale, AZ.

Don Bluth is a legend in his own time. The creative genius behind some of the greatest animated film classics of all time (The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Anastasia), he has now chronicled the story of his cinematic journey with the publication this year of Somewhere Out There: My Animated Life.

As if to punctuate the attributes that have defined his fame, he has delivered a home run with his return to the stage as director of his eponymous theatre company's current production of Noël Coward's PRIVATE LIVES. What better way to demonstrate his directorial acuity and sense of theatricality than to select this popular chestnut from the '30's.

Coward was an audacious playwright, inclined to wrap his cynical perspectives on life in flamboyant and comical portrayals of human relationships. In PRIVATE LIVES, he skewers love and marriage with a piercing sense of irony. His dialogue is full of wit, flair and sophistication...and the assembled cast recites it with exceptional vitality.

The setting is the French Riviera where Elyot Chase (Tom Koelbel) and his second wife, Sibyl (Breona Conrad), are honeymooning. In a twist of circumstance, it turns out that Elyot's first wife, Amanda (Christi Sweeney), occupies the next-door room with her second husband, Victor (Jack Pauly). Elyot's and Amanda's marriage was, to say the least, tempestuous, not a likely inducement for any form of reconciliation. Yet, increasingly dissatisfied with their new mates, they revive their affair of the heart and flee unceremoniously to Paris.

New digs don't change the dynamic. In what might be considered an earlier and much tamer version of Albee's George and Martha story, the situation finds two people who can neither live without each other nor can they live with each other. But, with each other they are, destined apparently to thrive on their dysfunction.

Ironically, as Sibyl and Victor arrive in Paris and walk in on the brawling and bruising couple, they too devolve into bickering and animosity. It's enough to bring a degree of amity to Elyot and Amanda who gleefully watch the embroilment of their latest exes before they tiptoe beyond the curtain for sights unknown.

Over the decades, the play has received a great deal of critical attention. Some critics have thought it to be superficial and even dark. Coward himself observed in Dick Richards's The Wit of Noël Coward that critics called the play "tenuous, thin, brittle, gossamer, iridescent, and delightfully daring ~ all of which connoted in the public mind cocktails, repartee and irreverent allusions to copulation, thereby causing a gratifying number of respectable people to queue up at the box office." He obviously understood his audience's tastes. At the same time, the British Observer's theatre critic thought that the play depended on brilliant acting and that, although the characters may have seemed unrealistic, they were nonetheless "delicious company".

In today's world of wokeness, some may find the "battle of the sexes" an inauspicious theme or discern that the characters are objectionable stereotypes. But, they would be mistaken to venture into that realm of political correctness.

The men and women in this play are strong characters, not a one of them a pushover, and each fulfilling their roles with the requisite panache that makes the cast "delicious company" indeed for two hours.

Koelbel portrays Elyot with a solid mix of suave self-indulgence and relentless nastiness. His unkindness and dismissive attitude toward Sibyl makes him the play's natural villain.

If Elyot is contemptible, Sibyl exemplifies the opposite. In this regard, Breona Conrad delivers a shining and refreshing performance as the innocent, naïve, and undeserving object of Elyot's scorn.

Christi Sweeney delivers a standout performance as Amanda, bringing to her role a poise and elegance that is magnetic. Her Amanda is a force to be reckoned with and more than a match for Elyot.

Jack Pauly is terrific as Amanda's suave new but short-lived partner and a source of comic delight, particularly when, offended by Elyot's brutish behavior, he challenges Elyot to a round of fisticuffs.

Staged in-the-round, Bluth's blocking is perfect. Teresa Knudson has dressed the cast in colorful and beautifully tailored suits. Bret Reese's lighting and Roger McKay's sound design are crisp and bright. The scene changes are well-executed by a team of volunteers dressed in the blue and white striped tops of French sailors, at the helm of which is the mercurial Natalie LeBrasseur (the maid, Louise). All together, the production is a well-rounded and delightful tribute to Noël Coward.

PRIVATE LIVES runs through August 27th at the Don Bluth Front Row Theatre in Scottsdale.

Photo credit to Julia Moore: L to R: Jack Pauly as Victor Prynne, Christi Sweeney as Amanda Prynne, Natalie LeBrasseur as Louise, Breona Conrad as Sybil Chase, Tom Koebel as Elyot Chase


From This Author - Herbert Paine

Herb Paine ~ Herb has served as Senior Contributing Editor and lead reviewer for BWW's Phoenix Metro Region since 2014. He has been acclaimed as BEST THEATRE CRITIC by PHOENIX magazin... (read more about this author)

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