Private Lives; RSVP take laugh-filled look at manners

Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in Private Lives.

Ah, matrimonial bliss.

What couple hasn’t looked at each other at least once, and observed:

“Ever since the first moment I was unlucky enough to set eyes on you, my life has been insupportable.”

Admittedly, not every connubial conversation is so picturesque. But caustic comments such as this flow freely in Noel Coward’s comic masterpiece, Private Lives, the current production at DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Solidly directed by Maria Aitken, Private Lives takes an acerbic look at manners and in the process delivers some of Coward’s most ribald, rapid fire dialogue.

The play opens on the bucolic balcony of a seaside hotel someplace in France where, unbeknownst to them, divorcées Amanda and Elyot are both honeymooning with their brand new partners. Discovering this disquieting dilemma, Amanda and Elyot each plan an immediate escape from what Amanda rightly describes as, “A horrible awkward situation”, only to reunite and then set off together for Paris, leaving their stupefied spouses (Sibyl and Victor) behind.

That Amanda and Elyot would do something so self-serving actually comes as no surprise. Early in Act I, for instance, we hear Elyot tell Sibyl:

“(Amanda) divorced me for cruelty, and flagrant infidelity. I spent a whole weekend at Brighton with a lady called Vera Williams. She had the nastiest-looking hairbrush I have ever seen.”

Bianca Amato as Amanda and Jeremy Webb as Victor in Private Lives. (Courtesy Huntington Theatre)
Bianca Amato as Amanda and Jeremy Webb as Victor in Private Lives. (Courtesy Huntington Theatre)

Then later:

Amanda: I’m so apt to see things the wrong way round.

Victor: What sort of things?

Amanda: Morals. What one should do and what one shouldn’t.

Is this kind of behavior normal? Maybe, according to Amanda, who states:

“I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives.”

Private Lives premiered in 1930 with Coward and his muse, Gertrude Lawrence, playing Elyot and Amanda. The most famous revival brought together another quarrelsome couple: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. A 1931 film version starred Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery.

The program notes of the Shakespeare Company’s production state that this revival was originally produced back in 2012 by Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company. A quick glance at the credits reveals that both director Aitken and four of the five players were also part of that 2012 production, effectively making this production a revival of a revival.

Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl and James Waterston as Elyot in Private Lives. (Courtesy Shakespeare Theatre Company)
Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl and James Waterston as Elyot in Private Lives. (Courtesy Shakespeare Theatre Company)

In the leading roles of Elyot and Amanda, veteran actors James Waterston and Bianca Amato appear absolutely at ease with the clamber of two ever warring divorcées. The duo are plucky and pleasing while putting over Coward’s riveting repartee. Their singing and dancing are not polished and perfect, but even here, Amato and Waterston come across as surprisingly endearing, allowing the audience yet another opportunity to embrace the contentious couple.

Autumn Hurlbert and Jeremy Webb play the jilted spouses, Sybil and Victor.

Hurlbert is delightfully fatuous as the childish Sibyl, while Webb makes a suitably dry and pompous Victor. The pair also rise to the comedic occasion in their characters’ futile attempt to fight back at the outrageous actions of their two wayward spouses.

Jane Ridley (the lone newcomer to this production) makes the most of her turn as the very put-upon French maid Louise.

On the technical side, Allen Moyer’s set and Candice Donnelly’s costumes both appear to have traveled with the show from Boston. Each work well and are very nice. The musical selections for Private Lives provide an indispensable touch and include the Coward composition “Someday I’ll Find You.”

Noel Coward may have penned the line, “It’s a pity you didn’t have a little more brandy. It might have made you more agreeable!”, but no one can deny that this production of Private Lives is a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatre. Highly recommended.

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Glass Mind Theatre closed its season this weekend with its own comedy of manners: a devised production called RSVP.

Directed by Ann Turiano, RSVP took a tongue-in-cheek look at a first edition copy of Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home – the massive mainstay on civility compiled by Baltimore born Emily Post.

Emily Post (Wikimedia)
Emily Post (Wikimedia)

The troop had fun putting Post’s rules into practice, first demonstrating the damage civility could wreak on a class-conscious community in the 1920’s; then time-traveling to the present and plopping two courtly gents onto the campus of Towson University.

While at times a bit slow, the cast enthusiastically tackled twelve of Post’s prim and proper chapters. Exceptionally entertaining were “Bad Taste in Mourning” and “One’s Position in the Community”.

The seven-member ensemble included Caitlin Bouxsein, Kerry Brady, Vince Constantino, Marcella Di Pasquale, Liz Galuardi, Lorraine Imwold and Justin Lawson Isett.

Particularly pleasing was Di Pasquale’s take on a standards-stretching girl of the future and Constantino’s one-man execution of a 3-way conversation between three generations of ice-packing tycoons. Kudos to Caitlin Bouxsein for really sinking her claws into her performance.

Glass Mind Theatre has just announced its theme for next season: Bound. Details may be found by visiting the company online.

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Private Lives runs from now – July 13 at the Lansburgh Theatre 450 7th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20004. Running time is about 2 hours 30 minutes with two 10 minute intermissions. Tickets and other information (including the best deals on parking) may be found by visiting the Shakespeare Theatre online.