Private Lives by Noel Coward, Huntington Theatre, Boston University Theatre, 5/25/12-6/24/12, http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2011-2012/private-lives/.
Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook
Sometimes, the mark of a good play is how close it comes to the bone. If you are secure in your romantic relationship, you will laugh heartily at Noel Coward’s Private Lives, playing at the Huntington. If you aren’t secure, you will laugh nervously. If you are single, you will laugh derisively. Either way, you will laugh at this mashup of the foibles of all passionate lovers everywhere.
The play starts on the premise of bad luck. Amanda (Bianca Amato) and Elyot (James Waterston) are two battle-scarred lovers on honeymoon, just not with each other. The pair had long since divorced each other after a tumultuous marriage and married other, more malleable partners. Yet they still carry a torch for one another, which makes the fact that they share a hotel balcony mighty inconvenient. The two try to do the noble thing and persuade their new spouses to flee once the coincidence is discovered, but they do it ignobly by not letting on why and their spouses refuse. Unable to flee their impulsive attraction to each other, Amanda and Elyot suck each other in with the gravitational force of a black hole, and the rest of the play is like a real-time postmortem on their previous marriage.
Coward delivers some of the funniest dialogue of the 20th century, but sometimes his script seems vindictive. He holds a hopeless view of love, and he places much of the action in claustrophobic interiors where the characters have nowhere to run. It’s a jaundiced view of love best espoused in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, that states that all lovers are mad and the only reason they roam free is because the madness is too common. But instead of setting this lesson in lush forests with blushing young lovers to relieve the audience’s discomfort, Coward gives us empty and opulent interiors with jaded older lovers. The effect is powerful, but it also leaves one with an unmistakable hangover.
Bianca Amato most perfectly embraces Coward’s script and makes a terribly real Amanda, an impulsive woman who knows she is radioactive to lovers, but, like a romantic Cassandra, who can’t get men to listen to her warnings. Amato delivers her character’s complex and biting lines to perfection, making Amanda seem permanently a step ahead of the rest of the world. James Waterston is Amato’s match as Elyot, a sharp and dangerous man who has never grown up; it is amazing to see Waterston’s long frame and grave features grow petulant and curled up as Elyot throws one of a series of tantrums. Jeremy Webb also delivers as Victor, Amanda’s second husband. With his puffed up chest and fixed smile, Victor embodies the powerless stuffed shirt. Less successful are Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl, Elyot’s second spouse, and Paula Plum as a maid named Louise. While both characters are finely drawn, neither achieves real depth underneath Coward’s façade of superficiality.
The set is generally magnificent, eliciting applause from the audience, but it can sometimes border on too much of a good thing. Designer Allen Moyer impressively captures a hyper-real style that captures the opulent time, but it sometimes leaves the audience too little room for imagination. The only time he breaks is with the stage curtain, which comically looks like France as drawn by Ludwig Bemelmans of Eloise fame. One expects to see the play begin with twelve little girls in two straight lines.
Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting also goes for a realistic style, but is heartbreakingly successful. Nothing gives a queasier feeling than the too-bright morning-light that filters through the wreckage of relationships in Act III. It, and this play, illuminates the limits of passion and politeness in too terrible of detail for comfort.