The set-up: The classic comedy Private Lives by Noel Coward is a much-revived vehicle because of its wit, rich humor and vibrant characterizations. The leading role of Amanda has served as a magnet to many actresses: Gertrude Lawrence, who originated the role, Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Collins, and Elizabeth Taylor, who played opposite Richard Burton. Noel Coward himself directed and played the male lead Elyot in the original production.
The execution: The plot is simple - a couple divorced five years ago meet by chance at adjoining suites in the south of France on their respective honeymoons - each has just re-married - and discover that the passion of their mutual attraction has not died but has just been smoldering; they abscond to Paris. In Act Two, they engage in repartee and fond memories, and some not so fond, as the strong personalities of Amanda and Elyot emerge, clash, and begin to repeat the chaos that had been their marriage. In Act Three the abandoned spouses confront Amanda and Elyot about their shocking misbehavior.
The play is durable, but fragile. I saw Joan Collins, famed as Alexis on Dynasty, excel in it at the age of 57- her beauty and poise endured, and she pulled it off. (I saw one production where the Artistic Director cast herself, and I shudder at the memory, brief though it is, as I fled the theater at the first intermission.) The good news - the very good news - is that Autumn Woods plays Amanda, and brings to the role an exciting personality, striking looks, and a talent to amuse, all the elements that Amanda requires. And that make for theatrical stardom.
Brian Heaton plays Elyot and captures his verve, charm, and the self-centeredness the role calls for. Heaton and Woods have the onstage chemistry essential to make the play work, and the ensuing wild turbulence is delightful. Roy Hamlin plays Victor, Amanda's abandoned new husband, and is excellent in the role originally created by Lawrence Olivier. Whitney Zangarine plays Sybil, the abandoned new wife of Elyot, and, through no fault of her own, is less successful. She has been given a blond, ill-fitting wig that appears to have been carved in stone, and she plays Sybil as such a twit that Elyot becomes defined as an idiot to have married her.
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The play is a gentle satire on the self-importance and utter certainty in their values of the British upper class. It is a comedy of manners and sophistication, not a farce, and the director Gregory Magyar falters in this perception. The playwright has cautioned that Sybil and Victor must be credible spouses, and the Sybil portrayed here by no stretch of the imagination meets this criterion. Though physically attractive, Zangarine plays Sybil as such an empty-headed bore that we are bludgeoned with this impact immediately, rather than having the insight dawn slowly upon us. There are other elements of farce - a loveseat too small to seat two comfortably, moving furniture needlessly to block exits from bedrooms - these devices might better have been abandoned, like the new spouses,. But Magyar shows his skill in the interactions of Heaton and Woods, and this dynamic duo is the heart - and dare I say the soul - of the production, and they make this a memorable evening.
Amanda Mena plays the role of the French maid Louise, and gets her appropriate laughs with good comic timing. The set designed by Adrian Collinson serves well for the hotel balcony in Act One and converts brilliantly into the Paris flat for the later acts. I recommend staying in your seats during the first intermission to watch the transformation - it is fascinating.
The verdict: Excellent acting brings to exciting life a timeless comedy, and playwright Noel Coward's wit and shrewd understanding of human nature emerge yet again in this triumphant revival.
Private Lives continues through January 27, from Encore Players at Katy Visual and Performing Arts Center, 2501 S. Mason Rd, #290, Great Southwest Equestrian Center. For ticketing or information, call 281-829-2787 or contact the theater's werbsite.