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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Private Lives — Walnut Street Theatre

private14Kathleen Wallace slides into Noel Coward bons mots with a delicious subtlety that contrasts well with her nimbly gymnastic and diabolically satirical takeoff on Merce Cunningham-Martha Graham modernism when a dance record we expect to bruit the big band sounds of Bix Beiderbecke turns out to be a contemporary ballet score by Igor Stravinsky.

There’s Wallace, hopping percussively to an empathic beat, jumping like a Balinese dancer on meth, and throwing arms and legs to the side with reckless abandon while Greg Wood, playing her partner, does a kind of pelvic twist that says, “I don’t dance as well as you, but I’m just as adept at having gratuitous fun.”

Fun is definitely a dominant element in Bob Carlton’s frothy, meticulously conceived production of Coward’s “Private Live” for the Walnut Streeet Theatre. It combines with wit, intellect, and the right blend of human scale and whimsy to create a marvelous party in which the lead characters, Amanda Prynne and Elyot Chase, get to display all of their spontaneous zest for life while proving themselves to be sophisticated cosmopolitans that express their feelings freely, whether they what they feel wends towards hilarity or anger.

Wallace’s magnificent Amanda captures every nuance of a woman who ranges from exuberant madcap to cultivated woman of the world and formidable termagant. Wood’s Elyot follows suit as non-stop charmer who prefers to keep the world about him light and airy and devoid of tiresome judgments, commitments and responsibilities. Wood, looking like Robert Redford in a blond wig that could have come from Redford’s ’80s wardrobe table, is the quintessential gentleman of leisure who wants to laugh, dance, experience adventure, sunbathe, gamble, and have a high time over cocktails.

Elyot and Amanda are the perfect pair, and they both know it. Their problem is they both take offense easily and have explosive tempers made more dangerous when you realize each has a short fuse. Carlton’s production makes it seem as if Elyot is the initiator of most of the rows, but that is no matter, since Amanda is perfectly capable of giving as good as she gets and can be just as combative or sarcastic as Elyot. Outbursts are as much a part of Elyot and Amanda’s relationship as kisses, dancing, gossip, trading barbs, finishing each other’s sentences, and sex. Their compatibility is grand, but mutual tantrums have sundered their marriage. When we meet them, Elyot and Amanda have been divorced from each other for five years.

Coward’s genius is to have us meet them on their honeymoon to other people who, on sight, seem totally unsuitable. I can’t help but think Coward named Victor, Amanda’s new husband, Prynne, as a twisted homage to Hester in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” and as a play on the real name of the Puritan husband who abandons her to shame. Hester gave in to romantic passion and paid for what her society branded immorality. Victor is just a prig, the exact one who would saddle Hester, or Amanda, with her “A” given the legal chance, and Dan Hodge plays his British propriety perfectly. So perfectly you can’t imagine how Amanda could agree to marry him (especially in his brown tweed golf knickers). Lauren Sowa’s Sibyl, Elyot’s new wife, is nearly as prim and rulebound as Victor but displays more tolerance and more humor for Elyot’s flights of carefree living. I think Coward gave the second Mrs. Chase the name Sybil just so he could compose and include the line, “Don’t quibble, Sibyl.”

Enough musing about Coward’s motives. The Master deserves kudos for writing one of the funniest and best constructed pieces in 20th century English literature, one that brings Elyot and Amanda to adjoining Riviera balconies to begin their second marriages, has them abscond in passion for each other and revulsion for their new mates, sees their new-found joy dissolve into damaging rancor, and plots a heady confrontation with their current spouses. “Private Lives” is taut, loaded with brisk badinage, including a host of wonderful one-liners and set-up routines, and fraught with well-spaced moments of love, comedy, and venom. Elyot and Amanda are so undisciplined, they can’t contain their raucous or violent sides for two minutes, even after they devise a warning cry, “Solomon Isaacs,” or “solacs,” that enforces a “time out” when bickering escalates to battle royal.

For all of its qualities, “Private Lives” doesn’t always meet its potential. I’ve seen many a production in which Elyot and Amanda are mannered, their spouses overplayed as too conservative or too dowdy, and Coward’s sparkling dialogue delivered in a forced or self-conscious style that borders on parody.

Thank goodness for Bob Carlton and his cast at the Walnut. The director, his actors, include Clare O’Malley as the critical French maid, Louise, present “Private Lives” perfectly. Even scenes that lumber the show in good productions, such as Amanda’s discussion with Victor while Elyot and Sibyl parry offstage in Act Three, sails by beautifully as enacted by Wallace and Hodge. Wallace and Wood amuse the Walnut audience as much Elyot and Amanda amuse each other in the long passage before their idyllic reunion dissolves into pillow throwing, hair-pulling, record-smashing acrimony. Carlton and his troupe are so surehanded and on their marks, “Private Lives” percolates, sizzles, and entertains in every sequence, no matter which combination of characters is onstage. Wood and Wallace remain amazingly fresh in their portrayals, Hodge and Sowa provide great counterbalance, especially when Sowa’s Sibyl shows some appreciation for Elyot’s wit, O’Malley is cunningly comic, and all keeps your interest while providing an overall great time.

Carlton give this “Private Lives” verve by keeping it moving. Wallace and Wood as a adroit physically as they are verbally, and their constant animations works. The show’s choreography goes beyond Wallace’s ebullient motions to Stravinsky. It makes the fights and other altercations lively and enjoyable. The tone of Carlton’s production matches the brightness Elyot and Amanda exude at their freest and most congenial moments. It positively zings with energy and esprit.

Wood and Wallace both wear their breeding and sophistication well. They also show a Henry Higgins-like satisfaction in throwing off the trappings of their class and giving into sharp comments and temperament. Best of all, Wallace is so totally adult, even in her attitude towards sexuality, while Wood retains some Peter Pan youthfulness and obliviousness for Elyot even as he portrays him as a man of the world. The wide world as it turns out. Prior to meeting and marrying Sibyl, Elyot has taken a two-year trek around world (Be still my envy!), and experience Wood uses to establish both Elyot’s intellect and joie de vivre.

Together, Wood and Wallace keep the spark of Carlton’s “Private Lives” burning brightly. Theirs is the best performance of the play I’ve seen in the Philadelphia area. (A 1975 Broadway production starring Maggie Smith is my favorite.)

Kathleen Wallace contributes immeasurably to the never-ending immediacy of Carlton’s staging. She establishes each iota of Amanda’s character so thoroughly while never letting any specific trait get in the way of her creating a full, believable character who has an embarrassment of wonderful traits and some moxie of a prizefighter to go with them.

Wallace is droll and tolerant as she deals with Victor’s curiosity about Elyot. She expresses surprise with comic aplomb, but no exaggerated shtick, when she realizes Elyot is the one humming their song on the adjoining balcony. Her first scene with Elyot, one in which Amanda agrees to share a cocktail on his terrace, is a skillful give and take of a woman who doesn’t know whether to stay and succumb to the affection she so obviously feels for the ex or take action against a sea of trouble and retreat to wait patiently for Victor, who like Sibyl, stubbornly insists in staying in Deauville, or wherever, when the spouses want to flee and avoid the rapprochement they know is inevitable.

Once the scene transfers to Paris, Wallace is the picture of relaxed sophistication, as Amanda languidly trades humorous inanities with Elyot and goes into her wild terpsichore before a fit of mutual jealousy caused by partners enjoyed by each during their separation, turns Amanda and Elyot into mortal combatants.

Greg Wood is excellent at maintaining a nonchalant jauntiness as Elyot.

This is a man who can travel the Earth and stay in mud huts or commute by camel when necessary but who obviously enjoys life free of danger or even threat when in the urban settings of Paris or the Riviera. Elyot is not a coward, but he will avoid confrontation when possible. Amanda says Victor will knock Elyot down if he encounters him, to which, Elyot, rather than vowing to fight back, says he will shout down the hotel if Victor comes near him with intent to assault.

Even when Elyot is in a lather, Wood retains a look of superior amusement. Elyot is not so much a snob as a man who knows where the elephants lie down. He is confident in life and able to handle any situation calmly. Well, almost any situation. Amanda knows how to rankle him.

Wood’s wistful joy makes Elyot totally likeable even as you notice he is the one who starts most of the arguments between Amanda and him. The picture of a man who is secure within himself is a buoying one, and Wood makes Elyot eminently well-grounded and likeable.

Dan Hodge does not shy away from priggishness as Victor. He uses Victor’s penchant for doing what he considered the right thing for a British gentleman of the 1920s to do to create a comic persona built on Victor’s practically absent sense of humor.

To Victor, life’s joys are home and hearth with a pretty and obedient wife. He says he will not give in to Amanda’s pleas to leave Deauville because if he starts to compromise so early in their marriage, life will become untenable.

Like Wallace and Wood, Hodge is remarkably real and consistent as Victor. You may never get a taste for the character, but Hodge plays him with a rigid, more than stiff, upper lip and a self-righteousness that becomes palpable.

Lauren Sowa is canny at combining Sibyl’s sweet and conventional ways with a tendency to want to prevail and dominate. Sowa’s Sibyl is not a silly flibbertigibbet or run-of-the-mill Mayfair-Hertfordshire deb. She is a woman of substance who can bend enough to appreciate the high life of casinos, resorts, and yachts Elyot likes.

The mark of Sowa’s effectiveness is she makes you feel sorry for Sibyl even as you’re mentally encourage Elyot to fly, desert, and annul. Even is the final scenes, Sibyl wins your regard while Victor is of “plague” caliber on lists of characters to avoid.

Clare O’Malley’s maid has few interactions with her employer or their guests, but she hrrmphs her disapproval at the disarray of the Paris apartment following Elyot and Amanda’s knockdown-dragout, an attitude she shrugs off as she helps herself to the couple’s brandy and cigarettes. O’Malley’s reaction as she notices Victor and Sibyl emerging from sofas where they slept, is also quite good. In her unobtrusive, bustling way, O’Malley adds nicely to the mise en scène.

The twin terraces, with ferns between, that Robert Koharchik designs for the opening scenes are lovely, but the Paris apartment he provides for Elyot and Amanda is perfect in its elegance, sumptuousness, and grandeur. Of course, you see a de rigueur Eiffel Tower in full height from the central window, but even if you didn’t, Koharchik’s flat would be one you’d accept in flash with its lush black sofas, beautifully burled tables, and tastefully playful moderne accents, furnishing, and wall decorations. Koharchik work matches Carlton’s and the actors’ in wit and élan, adding to the esprit of “Private Lives.”

Except for one suit that is wrong for the smartly elegant Amanda, a pink number that turns to bright red mid forearm and in the skirt, Mark Mariani’s choices for the character are savvy and exquisite. Even the tuxes Elyot and Victor wear have the tailoring men of their class would insist upon. Victor’s traveling suit, with his golf pants both makes fun of Victor and cuts to the core of his character. Sibyl’s travel costume could be improved upon in terms of all it says, all positive about the character, being well made and in fashion not stylish. All gowns, loungewear, dressing clothes and travel apparel for Amanda, expect for that horridly hued suit, are, once again, spot on.

Elizabeth Atkinson’s sound design nicely brings in Coward’s “Someday I” Find You,” the song that informs Elyot and Amanda they are in each other’s presence. Stuart Duke’s lighting of Koharchik’s dark Paris drawing room, and the outdoor scenes down L’Avenue Montaigne, provide just the patina of elegance to turn a well-conceived setting into an inspired one.

“Private Lives” is a show you will have many opportunities to see in a theatergoing lifetime. Please don’t miss the chance Bernard Havard, Mark Sylvester, Bob Carlton, Greg Wood, Kathleen Wallace, Dan Hodge, Lauren Sowa, Clare O’Malley, Robert Koharchik, Mark Mariani, Stuart Duke, and Elizabeth Atkinson have so exquisitely provided for you to see it this time.

“Private Lives” runs through Sunday, March 1, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and 7 p.m. Sunday (except for Feb, 15 and March 1). Tickets range from $82.25 to $24.75 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3555 or 800-982-2787 or by visiting www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

 

 

 

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