Private Lives

June 5, 2012

in Plays

Play (1930)
by Noël Coward

Huntington Theatre Company
Boston University Theater
Boston, MA

Directed by Maria Aitken

Scenic Design: Allen Moyer, Costume Design: Candice Donnelly, Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg, Sound Design: Rob Mlburn & Michael Bodeen, Choreography: Daniel Pelzig

With Autumn Hurlbert (Sibyl), James Waterston (Elyot), Bianca Amato (Amanda), Jeremy Webb (Victor), Paula Plum (Louise)

Bianca Amato as Amanda and James Waterston as Elyot,Photo:  Paul Marotta

Bianca Amato as Amanda and James Waterston as Elyot
Photo: Paul Marotta

A raucous British comedy of manners set in France, appropriately Freudian, resonating with echoes of Hegel and embellished with touches of Marx… Brothers.

Elyot (James Waterston) has been divorced from Amanda (Bianca Amato) for five years and is now just married to Sibyl (Autumn Hurlbert) and with her on their honeymoon in France.

Surprise, surprise – his ex, just married to Victor (Jeremy Webb), is staying in the next room.

Elyot and Amanda, startled by sparks that linger, encounter one another anew after the hiatus, and a riotous sequence of rejoinings and punctuated breakups occurs.

Noel Coward as Elyot and Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda in the original 1930 production of Private Lives.

Noel Coward as Elyot and Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda
in the original 1930 production of Private Lives.

This is a comedy of manners, but its significance goes far deeper than its superficial hilarities. On the one hand, it is a refined and delightfully constructed social entertainment like Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. On the other, it is a deeper treatment of the rhythms of intimacy.

A therapist friend wrote me very happily about seeing this production and I can certainly see why she liked it so much. Not only is the play superbly written, but this production is carried off with a combination of precision, jocular hijinks and evocative sentiment that makes it not only diverting but absorbingly inspired. The trajectory of relationship, depicted here as a kind of hysterical romp, also carries with it a penetrating logic. Whatever settles soon disrupts, and that is the fuel of love.

James Waterston (Elyot), Jeremy Webb (Victor), Bianca Amato (Amanda), Autumn Hurlbert (Sibyl).

James Waterston (Elyot), Jeremy Webb (Victor),
Bianca Amato (Amanda), Autumn Hurlbert (Sibyl)
Photo: Paul Marotta

Though this is a British drawing room comedy, its philosophical underpinning is Hegelian, cyclical and evolutionary.

The development of closeness and passion depends upon a revisiting of squabbles that force periodic alienation, then breed ever deeper levels of integration. That Hegelian rhythm is the emblem of therapeutic development in the life of enduring relationships, and it is a pleasure to see it depicted with comic and psychological finesse in the embrace of witty English theatre.

Amanda: Do you realise that we’re living in sin?

Elyot: Not according to the Catholics, Catholics don’t recognise divorce. We’re married as much as ever we were.

Amanda: Yes, dear, but we’re not Catholics.

Elyot: Never mind, it’s nice to think they’d sort of back us up.

(Private Lives, Act 2).

This Huntington production is beautifully done.

The director, Maria Aitken, has a very long history as an actor in Noël Coward productions and her deftness comes through loud and clear. She pulls off the fine tuning of that wildness that, in this play, constantly erupts beneath the constraints of expected social form. There is a touch of Marx Brothers anarchy, quite appropriately, though constrained and suited up. Given British accents and tied down just a bit, the boys might have felt right at home here.

The acting is crisp and compelling.

Bianca Amato and James Waterston are hysterically unwound and irresistibly passionate, while Jeremy Webb and Autumn Hurlbert hold to the constraints as long as they possibly can. Paula Plum (much familiar to Boston audiences from her tenure at the American Repertory Theatre) as Louise, the French maid, inhabits the role of that buffering witness coolly and adeptly.

– BADMan

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