Theater: Witty Ways

‘Private Lives’ is entertaining—at first

By Charles Brousse

“I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives … Elyot and I were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle.”

That’s how the just re-married Amanda Prynne explains the divorce from her previous husband to new spouse Victor in Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which is currently occupying the stage at the Ross Valley Players’ (RVP) Barn Theatre. With its theme of the familiar pitfalls in marriage and accompanying witty repartee, it might seem a natural choice for a community theater like RVP. In fact, the opposite is true.

A bit of digging into the critics’ response to the 1930 London premiere reveals that while the play—which incidentally had an all-star cast that included Coward himself, Adrianne Allen, Gertrude Lawrence and the young Laurence Olivier in principal roles—was considered amusing, but as a distinctly English comedy of manners it would stand or fall on the ability of future productions to capture its special flavor. That’s a tall order for 21st century American performers, who are not skilled in this kind of droll humor, with its understated irony and sarcasm; Americans tend to plunge ahead full tilt. “Clear the deck and let ’er rip!” For better or worse, subtlety is not a value on these shores.

That being so, the bar for RVP was set pretty high, and although director Ken Rowland and his cast give it the old college try, they can’t clear it. The result is that while the first act is reasonably entertaining, the second act’s repetitious marital conflicts begin to feel like watching  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf twice in one sitting. Whatever comedy there was dissolves into tedium.

Coward reputedly wrote Private Lives in four days while recovering from influenza in a Shanghai hotel during a China tour. Literary critics differ as to the author’s intent. Some say that he wanted to write a vehicle for himself and Gertrude Lawrence, a good friend and the London stage’s leading actress. Others say that he was in a nasty mood because of the illness. Still others maintain that the play is a typical homosexual dig at heterosexual marriage as an institution.

Its plot can be quickly summarized. Newlyweds Sibyl (Laura Morgan) and Elyot (Gregory Crane) have chosen a seaside Deauville hotel for their honeymoon. This is a second marriage for both, the first having ended some years before, and already there are cracks in the relationship caused by Sibyl’s inability to repress her curiosity about her new husband’s past. Coincidentally, Amanda (LeAnne Rumble), Elyot’s ex, and Victor (Simon Patton), also just married, arrive on their honeymoon and are assigned a suite with an adjacent balcony (nicely conceived to capture the oceanfront ambience by set designer Ken Rowland). They, too, are having their problems as Victor annoys his bride with unending questions about her previous marriage.

When Amanda and Elyot discover their unexpected proximity to former spouses, a romantic flame is rekindled and they resolve to run off together to Amanda’s Paris flat. Almost immediately, the old pattern of quarrel and makeup ad infinitum begins again, echoed by Sibyl and Victor when they appear after tracking the fugitives down. Watching the latter couple bicker reminds the original two that the future will be stormy, but having concluded that although they can’t live with each other, they also can’t live without each other, and they tiptoe quietly away.

This “resolution”—if it can be called that—is certainly not an optimistic view of relationships that are clearly dysfunctional. But, when performed by actors who are skilled at English comedy, it can be very funny. The fact that RVP’s cast lacks that capacity is not their fault—few American actors do. It does, however, suggest that producers should be wary of scheduling such material unless they are assured the needed talent is available. Take this innocuous exchange between Amanda and Elyot:

Amanda: “Have you ever crossed the Sahara on a camel?”

Elyot: “Frequently. When I was a boy, we used to do it all the time. My grandmother had a lovely seat on a camel.”

Amanda: “There’s no doubt about it, foreign travel’s the thing.”

It’s all nonsense, of course, but (if delivered with just the right inflection) it’s such lovely nonsense!

NOW PLAYING: Private Lives runs through June 18 at the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555;

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