Monday, September 14, 2015

Private Lives

Playwright:  Sir Noël Coward


Venue:  Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, 3955 Regent Circle, Colorado Springs, CO

Running Time:  2 hours, 15 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission) 

Date of Performance:  Saturday, September 12, 2015.

Noel Coward is a theater giant; he was knighted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in 1970 for distinguished achievement in theater.  One of his many achievements is Private Lives, currently showing at Theatreworks through September 27.

Despite a quote attributed to Coward (“Wit is like caviar - it should be served in small portions and not spread about like marmalade.”), he is famous for the witty, cutting dialog that many consider to be his best quality.  Private Lives is full of that wit and wisdom, and it is unquestionably one of Coward's finest scripts.  

Coward sets Act 1 of Private Lives in a 5 star hotel in Normandy, France, where Elyot (Mark Light-Orr) and Sibyl (Megan Gainey) are honeymooning.  Elyot has been divorced from his wife Amanda (Elyse Knight) for about 5 years, but has found new love with Sibyl (who, incidentally, is considerably younger than Elyot and Amanda).  Imagine Elyot’s surprise when he discovers that his ex-wife and her new husband Victor (Noah Wagner) have the adjoining room and deck.  

The solution?  Flee to Paris, of course.  Which is exactly what they do in Act 2, shacking up at Amanda's flat (or, as the French would say, Amanda's "pied à terre").  
Cast L-R:  Megan Gainey (Sibyl), Miriam Roth (Louise), Mark Light-Orr (Elyot), Elyse Knight (Amanda), Noah Wagner (Victor).

Private Lives is a comedy bordering on farce, with plenty of social commentary.  It was abundantly risqué for its time (1930), featuring a love scene between two people who are divorced from each other and married to others.  

Beyond that, Private Lives invited some criticism, as it portrayed the British upper class as primarily hedonistic, with strong tendencies for vanity, cynicism, shallowness and a touch of domestic violence.  An unflattering depiction (although not necessarily inaccurate), all things considered.  I would add that the plot is very contrived, although I am hardly the first critic to say so.  For me, it is at least one bridge too far to be even marginally credible.

That said, though, Private Lives is still marvelous entertainment, at least in the hands of a talented cast.  The Theatreworks cast is exactly that; talented, professional, and unquestionably inspired by the wit of the script.  Private Lives requires a deadpan delivery; it is, after all, “British humour.”  The ensemble here exquisitely delivers those lines to hilarious effect:
Amanda: Whose yacht is that?
Elyot: The Duke of Westminster's I expect. It always is.
Amanda: I wish I were on it.
Elyot: I wish you were too.
Megan Gainey (Sibyl), Mark Light-Orr (Elyot).

Mark Light-Orr’s wry delivery is perfect for Coward’s one liners, and he can deliver those lines with a devastating, detached sincerity.  His Elyot is simultaneously offensive and lovable. Light-Orr makes Elyot’s unlikely love-hate relationship with Amanda tragically credible.  But what Light-Orr does best is cleverly portray Coward’s central conflict:  what to do with a lover you can’t live with but also one you can’t live without? 

Elyse Knight is a perfect match with Light-Orr; their chemistry, whether they’re kissing or trying to kill each other, is palpable.  Knight is a capable foil for Elyot, giving it back to him in the same measure he dishes it out:

Amanda: Do you realize that we're living in sin?
Elyot: Not according to the Catholics; Catholics don't recognize
divorce. We're married as much as ever we were.
Amanda: Yes, dear, but we're not Catholics.

Megan Gainey’s Sibyl is marvelous; she plays her role as somewhat young and naive.  Gainey carries on extensively in the first act, hardly able to believe the cruelty Elyot visits on her on their honeymoon.  While vulnerable, Gainey gives her character a subtle, modern streak; she is always asserting herself and pushing back on Elyot’s bizarre behavior.  Gainey cleverly walks a fine line, giving her character backbone but never going too far with her righteous anger.  
Amanda and Elyot having one of their frequent rows.

Noah Wagner is Amanda’s doomed husband Victor, and in typical British style, Wagner is abundantly capable of a “stiff upper lip” about it all.  One gets the impression that his devotion was always conditional, and when the conditions changed, he quickly pivoted to the newest arrival on the market:  Sibyl.  Wagner pulls this off well; he seems to rather enjoy the unexpected opportunity to upgrade his mate.

Director Luke Yankee obviously appreciates the genius of Coward’s script.  It’s comedy, so it has to look easy.  In reality, we know it is not that easy.  Comedic timing requires actors to deliver each line at precisely the right moment.  Yankee knows this, and it shows.  Sometimes using brief pauses for effect, and other times zingers delivered immediately, Yankee strikes a perfect balance of comedic timing.  Under his direction, not a line is wasted; each is fully exploited for both telling the story and for delivering the laughs.

Scott Aronow has designed a gorgeous set in intricate detail.  It evokes the time period, and the wealth of the elite class.  Stephanie Bradley’s costumes are brilliant.  Seriously.  At intermission, I was suggesting to my wife that perhaps I should buy a dinner jacket.  White.  With black trim.  Just like Elyot’s.  His tuxedo was not just the appropriate attire; it set the tone for Elyot’s character.  Likewise, Sibyl’s blue dress and red hat in the first act were simultaneously lush and modest.  Megan Gainey was striking wearing Bradley’s design.

Private Lives is very entertaining, and the fact that it is being produced 85 years after it opened is a testament to it’s longevity.  The plot may be contrived, and some of the messages (spouses are fungible?) may be hard to reconcile with reality.  Still, Private Lives will quietly engage you with its smart, witty and biting brand of British sarcasm.  

Coward spreads his wit all over Private Lives like it’s some kind of marmalade.  That makes Private Lives is great fun, but not necessarily enlightening.  That said, though, the fun is more than sufficient.  Sometimes we go to the theater to be entertained, and other times to be enlightened.  Private Lives falls solidly in the former category, and this Theatreworks production will please and entertain anyone who is looking for a fun comedy by a giant of 20th century theater.


There is ample free parking at the theater, despite the signs marking nearly all of it for UCCS permits only.  It is open parking for theater performances.

There are adult themes in Private Lives.  Discretion is advised for children under 10.

This show closes on September 27, 2015.

PHOTO CREDITS:  Theatreworks



Producer:  Luke Yankee

Sound Design: Jerry Ditter

Lighting Design:  Lloyd Sobel

Set Design:  Scott Aronow

Scenic Artist:  Craig Crowder

Costume Design:  Stephanie Bradley

Stage Manager:  Timothy J. Muldrew

Fight Choreographer:  Benaiah Anderson


Sibyl Chase:  Megan Gainey

Elyot Chase:  Mark Light-Orr

Victor Prynne:  Noah Wagner

Amanda Prynne:  Elyse Knight

Louise:  Miriam Roth

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