Theater Review: These ‘Private Lives’ shine at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival
It’s called “Private Lives,” but the lives of two couples are on public display in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) sparkling new production of the 1930 Noel Coward classic comedy of manners, or perhaps, of ill-manners, through Aug. 4, Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley.
Sibyl Chase (Talley Gale) and Elyot Chase (Matthew Floyd Miller) are honeymooning at a hotel in Deauville, Normandy, on the northwest coast of France, when a familiar tune (“Some Day I’ll Find You,” written by Noel Coward), whistled on an adjacent balcony by Elyot catches the ear of Amanda Pyrnne (Eleanor Handley), vacationing with her new husband, Victor Pyrnne (Luigi Sottile).
From there emerges not a love triangle, but a love quadrangle. The words fly. So do vases. To quote the Rodgers and Hart song, “I wish I Were In Love Again,” from the 1937 musical, ”Babes in Arms,” sung famously by Frank Sinatra, “The conversation with the flying plates ... I wish I were in love again” is the conundrum of Amanda and Elyot. They can’t live without each other. They can’t live with each other.
It’s a “Battle of the Sexes” after the first act setup (the play has two intermissions). The second act in Amanda’s apartment in Paris becomes a “Battle Royale” of words, wit and physicality between Amanda and Elyot, worthy of a World Wrestling Entertainment “SmackDown.” It’s up with the sarcasm. It’s down with a body slam. At one point, Elyot crashes upon the coffee table. These are professional actors. Don’t try this at home.
But you can try PSF’s “Private Lives,” which gives you a fly-on-the-wall view of the shenanigans behind closed doors. In act three, the couples get back to the reality of their predicaments. As the curtain falls, one senses the couples’ respective situations will never be resolved. After the actors take their bows, Amanda heads toward the door and slams it, with Elyot in hot pursuit.
All kidding aside, whether single, coupled-up or married, “Private Lives” is a kind of “Couples Therapy” session, a life lesson of what not to do in a relationship. It helps if you have the wit of Noel Coward when you’re flinging the bon mots (“Don’t quibble, Sibyl.”).
Kidding aside is the point of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” and the PSF production, directed with meticulous grace by PSF Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze, is polished like a gem and sparkles like a diamond. While Razze knows language is king in “Private Lives,” so is body language. Razze lets several scenes play out in pantomime. Nary a word is spoken, while revealing volumes.
Letting words of wit be articulated and hang in the air with the right amount of pause to sink in is crucial, and successful in Razze’s direction. Equally important are the actors’ stage movements, especially in lovely duo and solo dances as staged by Choreographer Stephen Casey and the realistic-looking altercations of Amanda and Elyot as executed by Fight Director J. Alex Cordaro.
The casting, with New York casting by Laura Stanczyk and Sarah Cooney, is superb. The contrast among the four main characters is excellent.
Matthew Floyd Miller portrays self-possessed, coolly-efficient and charmingly-brilliant Elyot with the right amount of strength, insufferability and, yes, vulnerability. He humanizes what otherwise would be a hateful person. After all, Elyot is a narcissist personified.
One can sympathize with him somewhat because he has met his match, and then some, in Amanda. They fold into each other like Swiss Army knives.
Eleanor Handley gives a bravura performance as Amanda. She presents Amanda not as a churlish vixen, but rather an independent woman of passion, strength and beauty. Her body language is grand, relaxed and enthusiastically liberated. When she dances to a 78 rpm on the Victrola, you can see why Elyot, or anyone, would want to be in Amanda’s orbit.
Miller and Handley’s duet at the baby grand, singing “Some Day I’ll Find You” is bittersweet, and one of the play’s highlights.
Luigi Sottile is so good as Victor as to be unrecognizable. He creates a solid, doltish, bemused character who’s as clueless as he is sweet. His body language is almost that of being locked in place.
Talley Gale as Sibyl creates no idyll for anyone in her forthright, no-nonsense yet somehow lovable portrait of a woman done so wrong that one can’t help but sympathize with her.
Proving the adage that there are no small roles is Taylor Congdon, memorable as Louise the maid.
The attire by Costume Designer Sarah Cubbage is true to the era and characters, glamorous and swanky for the females, and sophisticated and gentlemanly for the males.
Sets by Scenic Designer Roman Tatarowicz are detailed with art deco flourishes. The production is rounded out by Lighting Designer Eric T. Haugen and Sound Designer William Neal.
“Private Lives,” first presented at the start of the Great Depression when the 1920s were still roaring for some, depicts men and women who give as good as they get. The play’s subject matter is by no means dated. It’s as mean as it gets. It’s enough to make one date-phobic forever. When making a pass, no one gets a pass. Don’t take it too seriously, though. It’s all in good fun. And what fun it is.
Tickets: Labuda Center for the Performing Arts lobby box office, DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley; pashakespeare.org/psf_tickets.php; 610-282-WILL (9455)