By Noel Coward
Directed by Mark Rucker
California Shakespeare Theater
July 8-August 2, 2009
Diana LaMar (Amanda Prynne) and Stephen Barker Turner (Elyot Chase). Photo: Kevin Berne.
The butler did it! Which is to say that Liam Vincent, in the small role of a butler finally finds the fizz in the delightful champagne cocktail that is Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” even if he does it in French. Not that the rest of the cast, Stephen Barker and Diana LaMar as Elyot and Amanda, a long-divorced but still-in-love couple, and Sarah Nealis and Jud Williford as their respective new spouses, falls flat. It’s just that the California Shakespeare Theater production of what is perhaps Coward’s most beloved and sophisticated comedy of manners never really pops the cork as high as it can go.
Comparisons are odious. So, shoot me. I was privileged to see the Alan Rickman-Lindsay Duncan version that took Broadway by storm a few years ago and I know the taste of champagne. Coward should be delivered bubbly and crisp and director Mark Rucker lets his actors take their time. Perhaps it’s a question of pacing after all. Then again, it’s a delightful romp, any way you play it. Who else but Coward could write a line like “Don’t quibble, Sybil” and get away with it? Or Elyot’s drawling “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.” No one does jaded sophistication like that any more and it’s worth a look whenever it comes down the road.
Amanda and Elyot, five years divorced, each remarry and go to a French resort on their honeymoon. What a coincidence! Not only is it the same resort but they have adjacent suites. A little music, a shared cocktail out on the balcony while their bride and bridegroom are primping for dinner and voila they are off and running, all the way to Paris to be exact, leaving their lovers in the proverbial lurch. But, after a brief idyll – actually less than a week – their old habit of squabbling takes over, resulting in a knock-down battle in which several toss pillows and many illusions are destroyed. At which point, Victor and Sybil, the deserted spouses, show up. Sacre bleu! No wonder the butler is so annoyed.
It’s light and fun and perfect summer fare. With drop-dead costumes by Katherine Roth, especially for the gorgeous LaMar, and stylish sets by Annie Smart it’s lovely to look at as well, especially on a sunny Sunday afternoon when cows can be seen grazing in the Orinda hills behind the open-air auditorium, an incongruous touch that Noel Coward would simply adore.