Monday, July 20, 2009

Theater review: 'Private Lives' a witty, pleasant summer tonic

Caroline Strong and Wynn Harmon in Private Lives.

By Hap Erstein

Perhaps as important as romance to a successful relationship is a well-matched pair of witty bickerers. And maybe that is as good a definition of love as you could hope to find.

At least that is the philosophy of Noel Coward in his 1930 classic comedy, Private Lives, now receiving a robust, satisfying production at Palm Beach Dramaworks, though one that's pitched a bit too sitcom-broadly.

Director J. Barry Lewis’s cast is strong where it needs to be, with the dapper Wynn Harmon and the regal Caroline Strong as Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne, a privileged pair of former spouses -- married for three years, then divorced for five. They meet again on the adjoining balconies of an upscale hotel in Deauville, France, while on their honeymoons to new, substantially less worthy, spouses.

As they caress Coward’s brittle wit, it quickly becomes clear that Harmon and Strong’s Elyot and Amanda are made for each other, even if they cannot go 10 minutes without hurling well-phrased invective at one another. So we are approvingly amused when they decide to leave their new mates behind and head off to Paris together, intent on trying to coexist again.

There in Amanda’s well-appointed apartment, they lounge about in expertly tailored pajamas, cooing words of love, and then switching gears at regular intervals for verbal skirmishes that might make Edward Albee’s George and Martha envious.

Coward wrote the two leading roles of Private Lives for the great Gertrude Lawrence and himself, showcasing themselves in the play’s second act, a delicious succession of contrasting moods, separated by a few silent time-out interludes. Harmon and Strong resort too often to shouting matches where underplayed withering rejoinders seem called for, but otherwise they wear these tour de force roles well enough.

Coward wrote in a showy musical sequence at the piano for himself in this scene, which has been cut here, presumably to avoid lugging the instrument onstage. Nevertheless, designer Michael Amico manages two attractive and substantial sets for the evening, making me wish I had stayed seated at intermission and watched the transition between the acts.

Eventually, of course, new spouses Sybil (Katherine Michelle Tanner) and Victor (Cliff Burgess) show up at the Paris flat, hoping to straighten matters out, but only convincing Elyot, Amanda and us further what meager mates they would make. The roles are fairly thankless, just straw figures to be knocked down, though Burgess manages to turn Victor into a drolly wooden cartoon.

The reason Private Lives is perennially revived is Coward’s well-polished dialogue, which offers a glimpse at how the upper crust misbehaves behind closed doors. Add in a couple of accomplished performers like Harmon and Strong and you have a summertime tonic, further proof of Coward’s talent to amuse.

PRIVATES 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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