Watching a Noel Coward play is like a journey back in time, especially when you consider Private Lives, which has been performed more times over more years than just about any other theatrical production outside of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. The premise has you struggling to suspend disbelief if you are under the age of, say, 100. Yet, it still provokes laughter and is certainly worth the price of admission.
The first couple we see out on the veranda of their honeymoon suite is Elyot (Jason Loughlin) and Sibyl (Liana Hunt) Chase. She is 23, a bit younger than the worldly and sophisticated Elyot whose sloughing off of Sibyl’s affection spells trouble on the horizon. Does he not love her? Is he gay? (Several stifled laughs from the audience occur when the term “gay” is used in its original meaning, not in the way we know it commonly today). Sibyl makes frequent reference to Elyot’s first marriage, apparently a disaster, and a sore point for Elyot.
The first couple retreats inside and a second couple appears on the same veranda of the adjoining suite. Victor (Spencer Plachy) and Amanda (Catherine Gowl) Prynne are also newlyweds. Amanda is the already bored wife and Victor tries vainly to interest her in what is supposed to be a celebration of their new life together. They also seem more focused on her first marriage disaster.
By now, it is obvious to the audience that Amanda and Elyot are the much maligned former couple, divorced five years ago. Then when Elyot and Amanda find themselves out on the veranda alone, the repartee begins, first picking up with their last fights before the divorce, eventually reconnecting with the wistful memories of their first love. So they do what any two people newly married to other spouses would do, they run off together.
The spurned newlywed spouses, Sybil and Victor, commiserate over their losses, but if you think they will find love with each other and share a happy ending, you must keep in mind that this is Act One of three.
The second act takes place in Amanda’s apartment back in Paris. At this point, it is easy to see why Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were perfect performing these roles in their 1983 revival of Private Lives. They vacillated between love and anger, then reconciliation, followed by more love and anger, just like Elyot and Amanda in the play. I will say at one point Elyot strikes Amanda and there was a reaction from the audience. That’s how far we have advanced in our attitude about violence towards women – more or less a norm in the 1930s when the play first became popular, and shocking today.
The third act takes place the morning after and features the two spurned spouses showing up at Amanda’s apartment. I’ll leave what happens up to your imagination, but it’s certainly worth buying tickets to see this show.
Noel Coward is a name familiar to anyone over the age of 50, but for those who may not be aware, he was a prolific writer, performer, producer and songwriter, penning over 300 songs in his life. His first major play, The Vortex, in 1924 featured themes about drugs and adultery, far ahead of its time. He entertained British troops during World War II and had a short stint as an unofficial spy. After the war he turned to cabaret and television, selling out performances in Las Vegas in 1955. He was knighted in 1970 and died three years later in Jamaica.
Whether to get a sense of Noel Coward’s genius or simply enjoy a fun evening, you owe it to yourself to see Private Lives, playing at the Riverside Theatre through February 19. Call the box office at 772-231-6990 or go online at www.riversidetheatre.com