Saturday, July 18, 2009

Theater feature: Dramaworks betting on classic Coward for summer

Noel Coward and Getrude Lawrence
in the original Private Lives (1930).

By Hap Erstein

Palm Beach Dramaworks is committed to producing modern classic theater, an ambiguous term that gets stretched even further in the summertime.

Though the West Palm Beach company has succeeded with revues of work by Jacques Brel, Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim, this summer is it gambling on a move away from musicals to a classic comedy series, beginning with Noel Coward’s 1930 take on marriage, Private Lives.

“I have always been a great fan of Noel Coward and his work,” says J. Barry Lewis, Dramaworks’ resident director. “And Private Lives seemed a good way to test the waters.”

Private Lives is the story of Amanda and Elyot, a formerly married couple who meet again on adjoining Deauville hotel balconies while on their honeymoons to new mates. There they pick up where their marriage left off, with all the romance, passion and bickering. It has been called a perfectly crafted comedy, a label to which Lewis agrees.

“The writing is extraordinary. It’s a perfect character-driven play,” he says. “It has all the elements -- the premise, the tension, the humor, the satisfying resolution. It’s a perfect play.”

But, he adds, do not expect to be slapping your knee or holding your sides with laughter. “You have to be careful when you think of it as a comedy, because today some think that means you have to laugh every third line,” says Lewis. “We are so accustomed to situational comedy on television that is truly written formulaically. This is something different. It’s language-driven, intent on being clever, content to draw smiles rather than belly laughs."

Considering how carefully crafted Private Lives seems, even almost 80 years after it was written, its genesis is intriguing.

“The story is Coward was exhausted from his work, so he went on a cruise to the Far East,” explains Lewis. “He ended up in Shanghai, by himself, and he came down with influenza. While he was bedridden, he had a fevered image of Gertie (Lawrence, his close friend and stage star, who originated the role of Amanda) standing on a balcony. And within the framework of that hallucination, within four days he completed a draft of the play.”

Private Lives is also deemed an insightful portrait of marriage, an institution to which the gay Coward had no personal experience. “He was a great observer of human behavior. He understood how to find those situations that were both emotional and, at the same time, humorous,” says Lewis. “Because he dealt with the human condition in a way that was unique for the stage in his time."

At the time, the morality of Amanda and Elyot was highly questionable.

As Lewis notes, “There’s a wonderful story of how Coward had to read the play in front of the censors in London, because they were not going to allow it to be performed. They thought it was highly immoral, while Coward insisted, ‘Oh, no, these are highly moral people.’ So he did a reading of it, playing all the roles, before the censorship board. And in so doing, he convinced them that it was fine, that there was nothing immoral about it.”

The experience led Coward to add a few lines to the play to the effect that Amanda and Elyot could not be living in sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church, because once married, the church says you are always married.

“And Amanda’s response to that is, ‘But we’re not Catholic.’ And Elyot goes something like, ‘Yes, that’s OK. At least we know they would back us up is we need it.’ ”

Private Lives has had many celebrated and scorned productions over the years, but Lewis feels that putting a novel directorial twist on the play would be a mistake. “You don’t do a treatment on this piece,” he says. “You don’t try to reconceive it. What you attempt to do is honor it, to be as faithful to it as it exists on the page and bring that to life.”

Not that that is simple to do. “You know the adage, ‘Dying is easy, comedy is hard’? It’s true,” says Lewis. “This kind of comedy is very challenging. Because there is usually no physical action on which to base movement or the set-up of a line. It has what I call ‘Noel Coward-isms,’ a kind of repartee that rarely exists in the framework of theater.”

Frequently, Amanda and Elyot resort to verbal and physical skirmishes, which could turn the audience off to them. “And you have to like these people, first and foremost, so that you begin to pull for them when things go awry,” says Lewis. “They’re overgrown children at times and they deal in a world where they have no accountability to anyone else but themselves."

Chances are Dramaworks’ theater-savvy audiences has already seen a production of two of Private Lives. Not surprisingly, Lewis suggests they see it again. “Why would you return to see anything again? It’s a rediscovery and in that rediscovery is a reconnection to what you enjoyed previously.”

And if you have never seen Private Lives? “It’s an opportunity to see one of the greats from the master, Noel Coward, a bigger-than-life-persona,” concludes Lewis. “And author and actor, a cabaret singer, a true Renaissance man. His work still has great accessibility. Yes, I’d say it’s a perfect comedy.”

PRIVATE LIVES, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach. Continuing through Aug. 16. Tickets: $40-$42. Call: (561) 514-4042.

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