- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

Arguably the direct successor to the flamboyant Anglo-Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward was indisputably the 20th-century master of English “drawing room” comedy. At his best, the late-Victorian Wilde was per-

haps the wittier of the two. But Mr. Coward soon proved with his acerbic touch, finely attuned to post-World War I sensibilities, that he could evolve Wilde’s politely wicked comedies of manners toward a more distinctly contemporary brand of social satire. Wilde’s comedies generally wrap up their frothy festivities with a decidedly moral conclusion. Not so those of Mr. Coward. His impossibly wealthy, resolutely dissolute deco couples not infrequently skate obliviously through a frivolous world devoid of meaning. Wilde’s certain certainties were supplanted by Mr. Coward’s humorous cynicism, postmodern in sense and sensibility.

Although the fluttery, irresponsible world Mr. Coward inhabited has mostly vanished today save for the occasional entourages of such flibbertigibbets as the tiresome Madonna and the grotesque Michael Jackson, Mr. Coward’s brand of bitingly humorous drama continues to resonate today. Theater audiences still find considerable enjoyment in the flippant insouciance of Mr. Coward’s idle rich, perhaps wishing that they, too, had nothing better to do than to be outrageously amusing.

One of Mr. Coward’s more acid-etched efforts in this genre, his 1930 comedy “Private Lives,” is playing at the rustic Main Stage at Maryland’s Olney Theatre. “Private Lives” jumps, in medias res, into a classic love-hate relationship that has veered back to love again after a lengthy hiatus. Once unhappily and vociferously married, Elyot and Amanda have parted five years before the opening curtain. We see them for the first time, each on a honeymoon trip with a new spouse, at a seaside resort hotel in France, at the same hotel and in adjoining rooms. Oh-oh. It’s romantic-comedy time. The result is a frequently merry farce. The old flame revives anew, with Elyot and Amanda fleeing their hapless spouses and shacking up in a gaudy Parisian flat.

Critics have disagreed about the durability of “Private Lives,” with some dismissing it as one of Mr. Coward’s weaker efforts. Nonetheless, it had good opening runs in London and New York in the 1930s, and a Broadway revival of the play in 2002 netted six Tony Award nominations. It’s easy to see why.

The play’s cheeky motivating premise is that truly stimulating marital relationships frequently involve nonstop mutual irritation and selfishness.

This kind of institutional cattiness was perhaps over the top in its own day, but it seems suitably apt for our own era, in which lasting commitments are increasingly hard to come by.

Seizing upon this idea and running with it, the current Olney production has its sparkling moments. The cast members certainly look the parts of buffed and polished upper-class English men and women with money galore and nothing to do but be clever. All have their 1930s high-society accents down to a fare-thee-well. The costumes are authentic and alluring. Director Richard Romagnoli’s pacing is crisp and impeccable, too. In the end, however, the effort remains largely two-dimensional, flummoxed by characters who are drawn by Mr. Coward in a way that makes them hard to like, and stymied by supporting actors who cannot always transcend this limitation. The cheap-looking cafe sets in Act I didn’t help the atmosphere, either, looking more like previously owned lawn furniture plunked down at a Motel 6 poolside than the elegant ice cream sets on a balcony overlooking the French Riviera that they were supposed to be.

Olney’s “Private Lives” is most alive when Elyot (Paul Morella) and Amanda (Valerie Leonard) are front and center. Snazzy, cynical and attractive, the studiously bored Mr. Morella and the leggy, nervy Miss Leonard snap and crackle with glamour, wit and a collective fear of ennui. Their personal chemistry lights up the room.

As Elyot and Amanda, they rut with animal vigor and pummel each other physically in endless screaming fits afterward. (This is one of few cafe comedies in which the male and female leads actually have their own fight coach.) As they are without any discernable moral compass, their former marriage and current affair make a marvelous hormonal stew of lust and selfishness.

Furthermore, theirs is a relationship for our own times, the kind you find in New York and official Washington every day. The naked desire of Elyot and Amanda for each other is driven most powerfully by each’s determination to completely dominate the other, and their fury rises as they realize the impossibility of it all. Plus, it is easy to see that if one of the characters ever clearly triumphs over the other, the game will no longer be any fun.

As Elyot’s and Amanda’s hapless new and soon-to-be-ex-spouses, Sibyl (Gillian Shelly) and Victor (James Slaughter) are perhaps less successfully realized characters. As Mr. Coward has drawn them, Victor is such a priggish twit and Sibyl such an airheaded shrew that it is difficult to muster any sympathy for them. One suspects that Mr. Coward didn’t much like them, either, and this is the play’s major deficiency. Mr. Slaughter blusters his way through the part of Victor with a kind of stalwart English manliness and generally pulls it off, but Miss Shelly is far less successful. Looking a bit like a pouty Bernadette Peters, she plays Sibyl as if the poor girl hasn’t a brain in her head (which indeed she may not), projecting her as a shrill and common harpy. One wonders what the dashing Elyot ever saw in her anyway, which may be precisely the point. Nonetheless, a little more nuance on the part of Miss Shelly might have helped transform this production into a play about characters rather than a drama in which actors frequently seem to be impersonating characters.

The Olney’s production of “Private Lives” is OK, a must-see, actually, if you’re a die-hard Noel Coward aficionado. It really leaps to life when Mr. Morella and Miss Leonard are having at it tooth and nail. On the whole, though, it disappoints, more perhaps the fault of the playwright than the players.

In “Private Lives,” Mr. Coward tiptoes up to the serious modern issue of how to make a marriage between two power lunchers. His exposition is excellent, his presentation often quite witty. But then he simply picks up and leaves because he doesn’t know the answer.

**

WHAT: Noel Coward’s “Private Lives”

WHERE: Main Stage of Olney Theatre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: Tuesday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinee June 26 at 2 p.m.; through June 29

PRICE: Tickets $15 to $35

PHONE: 301/924-3400MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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