In terms of “what’s the worst that could happen” honeymoon edition, the situation in Noël Coward’s Private Lives would probably fall somewhere between missing your flight or losing your luggage and that couple that ran afoul of six different natural disasters.
In Private Lives, divorced couple Amanda and Elyot find themselves both newly married and honeymooning not only in the same place, but staying at the same hotel and sharing the same terrace. Awkward. Or it would be, except it soon becomes clear that despite the terrible dysfunction that brought an end to their marriage, the two are still very much in love. When both of their new spouses (Victor and Sibyl, respectively) refuse to leave, Amanda and Elyot find themselves with just enough time to reconnect and decide to do the only thing they can think to do – “run like stags,” as Elyot says. With a hastily agreed upon plan in place (a code word to stop their fights from escalating), the two dash off into the night, heading for Amanda’s Paris apartment and leaving two very confused spouses behind … though not for long.
Look, Noël Coward’s not considered “The Master” for nothing. Throw a rock and you’ll hit a critic, an academic, a historian, and plenty of enthusiasts who’ll gladly explain why he’s one of the greatest British playwrights ever, but a viewing of Private Lives will give you a pretty good idea, too. Despite its sitcom setup, typical of a comedy of manners like Private Lives, Coward used the contrived plot to take a hard look at gender roles, love and marriage, and public versus private identities. But the real magic of the play is in his craftsmanship. It’s in the whip-smart, unforgiving dialogue. The clever mirroring. The depth. All of which demand a strong-handed director, and a talented cast. Guess where you can find both.
In a letter to Esmé Wynne, Coward once advised her to not “under rate your audience so dreadfully – instead of letting your people say how and what they’re feeling – let them express it more subtly – the audience will get it alright.” Coward wasn’t one to dumb anything down for the audience, and it turns out Director Claire Hart-Palumbo isn’t either. These characters aren’t just witty, they’re quick, and the serve and volleys here are Wimbledon-worthy. Enough can’t be said for Hart-Palumbo’s exquisite pacing, not only in terms of dialogue delivery but overall, and especially in the second act.
Like boxers, Amanda and Elyot are in the same weight class, well matched and downright explosive together – just as actors Elizabeth Marshall Black and Alan Brincks are. As Amanda, Black is self-possessed until she’s not, as opinionated and strong as she is impulsive and needy. Brincks is as cool as the moonlit night that greets the audience at the start of the play (courtesy of Lighting Designer Eric Marsh). He’s also glib, pompous, and condescending, with a mean streak and propensity for hitting. In the second act, Black and Brincks get to play the full range of their characters, the tragedy of their dysfunctional relationship on full display. In the words of a noted Grammy winner, “when it's going good, it's going great … But when it's bad, it's awful.”
Black and Brincks go from playful and giddy to spiteful and nasty in no time flat, their code word quickly seeming like it will be as successful as nailing Jell-O to a wall. Hart-Palumbo skillfully leads the actors through this second act wind-up, ratcheting up the tension between the two characters through barely contained barbs, foot stomps, lid slams, and newspaper openings until no word can stop the surge of vitriol and violence. And not for nothing, it’s a testament to Black, Brincks, and Hart-Palumbo that they were able to keep a play that includes honest to goodness domestic abuse so light.
In contrast, Sibyl and Victor are introduced as the standard bearers of propriety and tradition, certainly compared to Amanda and Elyot. And while this could be code for boring, in the hands of Skyler Sinclair and Joel F. Grothe, it’s anything but. Sinclair’s girlish neediness eventually gives way to sniveling, but she manages to keep it funny and not annoying, as evidenced by one particularly funny slide down the chaise lounge in Amanda’s apartment. Despite Grothe’s stiff upper lip, or maybe because of it, Victor is the most relatable and sympathetic character in the piece. Yes, he’s wooden and starchy, but he really loved Amanda, got screwed over, and then had to suffer through a few days with Sibyl. Bickering turns out to either be inherent or infectious, and when Sinclair and Grothe get their turn toward the end of the play, it’s quite fun and too short (especially for Grothe).
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Rounding out the cast is Rebecca Greene Udden, who makes a couple of brief but crowd-pleasing appearances as Amanda’s exasperated French maid Louise, exhibiting the perfect amount of done-ness with the situation.
Pulling double duty, Udden also serves on the production’s creative team as the costume designer, and from the cloche hat and drop-waist dress to the strings of pearls draped down someone’s back, the style of the production’s 1929 setting is palpable. Add in Set Designer Dylan Marks’ romantic shared terrace set that transforms into Amanda’s apartment, complete with touches of Art Nouveau and French Gothic architecture, and you’re firmly situated in France right before the Great Depression. And both Marsh and Sound Designer Yezminne Zepeda deserve credit for their well-timed light and music cues, including curtains letting is a bright flash of light and multiple songs in the first and second act.
Despite premiering in 1930, it's safe to say that you can add Private Lives to the list of things that get better with time. And Main Street's production is a terrific iteration.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Main Street Theater-Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard. Through August 11. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $38 to $48.