BWW Reviews: PlayMakers' PRIVATE LIVES is a Comedic Gem
Written in 1930, Noël Coward's Private Lives is the laugh-a-minute tale of divorced couple Amanda and Elyot, each newly remarried, who happen to run into each other on their honeymoons. Their new spouses, Sibyl and Victor, have no idea what's in store as Amanda and Elyot rehash old arguments and rekindle old flames. It is the classic tale of a couple who cannot stand one another - but cannot stand being apart even more.
When Private Lives first premiered in the West End in 1930 and on Broadway in 1931, it featured Coward himself as Elyot and Laurence Olivier as Victor. It has been revived on Broadway seven times, most recently in 2011, and has starred such names as Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Maggie Smith, Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Collins, and Alan Rickman - long story short, every production of Private Lives has a big legacy to live up to. Thankfully, PlayMakers Repertory Company was up to the challenge.
Though enough time has passed since the writing of the play that Private Lives could be described as a period piece, PlayMakers' production manages to avoid feeling dated at all. Despite the gap in time, geography, and (at least for some of us in the audience) social standing, the characters are still remarkably relatable for a contemporary audience. Credit is due not only to Coward's writing, but also to PlayMakers and to Sean Daniels's direction.
Julie Fishell and Jeffrey Blair Cornell are undoubtedly well-cast in the leading roles of Amanda and Elyot. The two have good chemistry and a clear understanding of Coward's comedic style. Yet, despite their talent and charm, it is Kristen Mengelkoch and Tom Coiner as supporting characters Sibyl and Victor who make a deeper impression. These two actors are new to PlayMakers, and bring with them vivacious comedic spirit, impeccable timing, and a way with physical comedy (both subtle and overt) which simply cannot be taught. Mengelkoch, in particular, turns a character which could easily be portrayed as whiny and irritating into a relatable woman who gets big laughs. Amanda and Elyot's story is a consistent pattern of fighting and making up, which is punctuated nicely by the appearance of Mengelkoch and Coiner's Victor and Sybil. The four work together tremendously well as an ensemble. Add in Tania Chelnov as French maid Louise, and it's a quintet of remarkable comedy.
PlayMakers consistently creates marvelous sets. This one is grand in size and elegance. Able to be transformed with simple pieces from a hotel veranda to a Paris apartment, the set feels more like a stunning ballroom than a cozy theater. It is remarkably effective in giving the right feel for the 1930s - audiences already know something about the characters before they even arrive on stage, having been set up so well by the effective scenic design of Michael Raiford.
Private Lives runs through February 9. For tickets and more information, visit www.playmakersrep.org.