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'Private Lives' mixes in laughter
THEATRE, BY BOB ABELMAN
'Private Lives' mixes in laughter
The world in romantic comedies tends to be seen through rose-colored glasses. It is an affable place with warm hues, poetic prose and endless optimism radiating from the soul mates who occupy it.
In Noel Coward's "Private Lives," written in the 1930s and currently playing on the Lakeland Theatre stage on the Lakeland Community College campus, the world is seen through a snifter of fine cognac. It is a country club resort of sorts, where it's well-off, refined but increasingly inebriated members grow loud, boorish and revealing. Quick wit is the currency in this exclusive place, and flippancy is its favorite pastime.
As the lights come up, we find two fabulously wealthy British couples honeymooning in an elegant hotel on the French Riviera. They come to realize that an ex-spouse of each of the couples is in a neighboring room. Elyot's ex-wife, Amanda, is on her honeymoon with Victor; Elyot is on his honeymoon with Sybil.
Over cocktails, the wonderfully shallow Elyot and Amanda rediscover each other on adjacent terraces and realize that they are still madly in love. They run off to Amanda's flat in Paris, where, amidst after-dinner drinks, the demons that led to their tumultuous divorce are stirred as well as shaken.
Tender moments between the reunited lovers give way to caustic barbs. Caustic barbs give way to an all-out brawl. A sobering cup of coffee in the morning gives way to a happy ending that only the playful Mr. Coward could concoct.
Alcohol is merely the playwright's pretense to allow his characters to mischievously reveal to their audiences in the 1930s the hidden truths of male infidelity, female sexuality and fisticuffs served up by both sexes. Highballs are the means to disclose the low tide in marital relations, and to do so with carefree buoyancy and acerbic humor.
In the playbill's director's notes, Lakeland Community College's Martin Friedman admits that he does not know if "Private Lives" is a laugh-out-loud comedy, given its subject matter and today's sensibilities. Thanks to Mr. Friedman's energizing direction and understanding of Mr. Coward's clever wordplay, as well as his cast's superb comic timing, the laughs will come. In fact, thanks to Sebastian Orr and Emily Pucell's delightful portrayals of Elyot and Amanda, the laughs will come often.
Mr. Orr, with pencil-thin mustache, elegant physique and debonair lilt, is 1930s-dapper personified. His Elyot is wonderfully dismissive toward life's realities and, as a result, is hilarious. Ms. Pucell carries herself with the same self-aware self-confidence found in every golden age of cinema starlet. She has great stage presence and is an absolute delight to watch.
Occasionally, a glimmer of humanity seeps into both their portrayals -- the result of fine actors seeking complexity in dated Mr. Coward caricatures where none exists. This threatens to bring some sobriety to the show. Fortunately, it is fleeting. Mr. Orr and Ms. Pucell's playfulness and abandon are intoxicating, which allow modern-day audiences to enter their cognac-filtered world with ease.
Alison Bencar and Joshua D. Brown follow suit as the forsaken spouses. Ms. Bencar's Sybil is the epitome of femininity, while Mr. Brown's Victor is perfectly plain, serving as ideal targets for Mr. Coward's witticism and absolute counterpoints to Elyot and Amanda. They make quick and stealth abandonment a reasonable choice. Christina Dennis does a nice turn as Louise, the French maid.
All the onstage activity is complemented by Keith Nagy's wonderfully detailed and well-appointed sets and Craig Tucker's true-to-period costuming. Mr. Brown also provides the very entertaining fight choreography for this production.
Noel Coward's world as seen through a snifter provides evidence of the medicinal benefits of alcohol. It was certainly a cure for what ailed a troubled nation in the 1930s and has been revived on Broadway six times. As theaters once again opt for escapism from economic woes, Lakeland Theatre's production of "Private Lives" provides it by the jigger full.
"Private Lives" continues through Oct. 11 at nearby Lakeland Community College in Kirtland.
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