Do yourself a favor and take in Private Lives (1930) at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, where Noel Coward’s inimitable masterpiece springs to life in a vibrant staging as nonpareil as the play itself.
Private Lives is a situation comedy to beat the band. Divorced for five years, Amanda and Elyot both remarry, only to smash into each other on their honeymoon night.
They fall in love again! At first blush, the premise appears too outrageous and narrow to float a play. But, not so, as the show sweeps you away with splashy staging and the actors’ masterful delivery of Coward’s nonstop, ill-tempered repartee.
Private Lives, in rotating repertoire with another love story, Antony and Cleopatra, uses the same actors. Their versatility is on display as they excel in a different genre. Luigi Sottile and Talley Gale play the new spouses, Victor and Sibyl, delightfully funny with their bodily movement and comic timing.
But it is well-traveled Broadway actor Matthew Floyd Miller as Elyot, and PSF star Eleanor Handley as Amanda who are gifted with most of Coward’s zingers. Hundreds of aggressive quips such as “Don’t quibble, Sibyl” and “It’s a pity you didn’t have a little more brandy. It might have made you more agreeable” do not bowl you over in stand-alone form. But Elyot’s and Amanda’s caustic way of being in the world takes on cumulative hilarity.
Veteran PSF director Dennis Razze boosts the gaiety by creating three fast-paced acts with two short breaks. Set designer Roman Tatarowicz’s Art Deco Paris apartment is eye-popping, while the luscious costume design of Sarah Cubbage captures character. Equally, Razze uses the talents of choreographer Stephen Casey and fight director J. Alex Cordaro. He needs both, because Elyot and Amanda sometimes dance, sometimes slug it out.
Coward and company always find a way to work through the play’s absurdity. For example, how do Amanda and Elyot so quickly fall in love? Coward’s nifty solution: He writes a song, “Somewhere I’ll Find You.” When the estranged lovers hear a distant orchestration, it rekindles romance (sound design, William Neal) and still another opportunity for a cutting barb. “Strange how potent cheap music is,” remarks Amanda. Coward livens up the final act with Louise, a cheeky French chambermaid (Taylor Congdon, a DeSales student) and a super-ironic ending you never see coming.
Private Lives shares some ground with Lost Generation writers following World War I and their disillusionment with conventional morality. The play’s contempt for marriage is shocking, even today. But Coward, who grew up an impoverished London commoner, is still more hooked on class-consciousness and needs to emulate the droll languor of the English smart-set. Also a solitary man, Amanda probably speaks for him, and us, when she says, “Few people are normal, deep down in their private lives.”