Saturday, April 01, 2006

opening-night review of *Private Lives*

at Spokane Civic Theatre through April 23

He stands on a verandah, one hand thrust into the pocket of his elegant double-breasted suit, the other holding a cigarette aloft — his hair slicked back, the pale skin of his forehead furrowed by the arch of one very sardonic eyebrow, his chin pointing toward heaven.

He won’t find it on earth — there’s this blasted inconvenience of having to deal with other people, especially those damnably attractive, exasperating creatures known as women. Much of the time, music and martinis compensate for the nuisance — for the rest, there’s nothing like thwacking cricket balls of wit, then gazing across the drawing room to see them land *splat!* right between the eyes of an unsuspecting conversation partner.

That’s Noel Coward’s kind of leading man — and that’s the polished display Kevin Connell puts on throughout the Civic’s current production of Coward’s *Private Lives* (through April 23).

Coward wrote the part of Elyot Chase for himself, and though he’s a witty raconteur few actors can embody, Connell is up to the task. In this thinking person’s escapist comedy about a wealthy, witty married couple — now divorced, both remarried, careening into one another quite by chance at a French resort — it’s the little things Connell does that give director Trevor Rawlins’ production its panache and sheen. Connell drapes his arm over a chair, crossing his legs at the knee and lounging in exquisite self-pity. Surprised by his ex-wife’s sudden reappearance, he registers Elyot’s incredulity and then snaps his back ramrod-straight, barking out “Are you happy?” to Amanda almost as an accusation. Somewhere around their 11th or 12th spat, he shouts, “I’d like to cut off your head with a meat ax” — managing to be simultaneously shocking and comic. Even when Coward writes silly little nothings for Elyot to coo toward Mandy — Sir Noel needs to move his plot along, you see — even then Connell somehow conveys the passion along with a slight note of self-mockery. Rather daft, this business of eloping with one’s ex-wife right during one’s second honeymoon — but there it is, nothing for it but to see the business through. Right, then — off we go into a world of farcical situations and verbal brilliance.

Except that Coward fashions comedy out of jealous rages, that meat-ax wish, even out of references to someone’s stillborn sister: There’s an undercurrent of sadness and anger in Private Lives, making it more than a merely escapist play. Hearing Coward’s repartee tossed off again and again only reinforces one’s sense of how great this script is. While the rest of Rawlins’ production doesn’t rise to Connell’s level, it’s a useful foray into a world where people are impossibly unconventional and witty and gay.

Rawlins directs with admirable variety and flow. A couple of exit lines are mistimed and under-emphasized, as are a couple of most quotable moments. If you’re not going to italicize the bits about Sibyl not being allowed to quibble and about the potency of cheap music, fine — no need to make the actors stand up and beg for laughs. But Rawlins seems to let the pendulum swing too far toward flat delivery. And in the third act — after the young spouses discover the central couple bickering yet again — the pace lagged, though Rawlins generally directed with energy, best of all in the alternating second-act waves of jealousy and love that wash over poor Elyot and Amanda. For all the studied elegance that we find in the Land of Noel, that’s perhaps all we can expect out of life: periods of intermittent passion, with a cold front of jealousy and selfishness looming on the horizon. Married people fight; all couples do. At least it shows we care.

Amanda cares mostly about herself — a disorder to which Elyot is subject, too — and Jone Campbell Bryan points up her character’s comic self-absorption. Campbell Bryan excels at these haughty-British-dame roles, and here she catches Amanda’s self-dramatizing without snagging enough of her unconventionality. But she has marvelous moments making comedy out of isolated phrases and movements: her double-take when she first notices Elyot on the adjoining balcony; the inflection she gives to “yes” when asked about when she first met her second husband (and obviously can’t place the moment at all); the way she appraises her fingernails while dismissing one of Elyot’s former flames as “fundamentally stupid.”

This is a production, however, in which the age difference between Amanda and Victor makes both of them seem miscast. Campbell Bryan’s Amanda seems not so much impulsive and pleasure-seeking as simply impatient with a callow youth; as Victor, J.J. Renz seems like an earnest undergraduate who lacks the gravitas to embody British formality. He's trying too hard.

Victor and Sibyl are thankless roles, and Renz and Rita O’Farrell don’t succeed in them. We need to see how Elyot and Amanda have sought ought the opposite of one other in their new spouses. Elyot wants a sweet, docile, manageable young thing, while Amanda — reacting against the dogfights she and Elyot used to get into — clearly has opted for British propriety and emotional reserve. But O’Farrell and Renz don’t show us either. O’Farrell had marbles in her mouth instead of an English accent; for his part, Renz spends too much time with his hands clasped behind his back in judgment — and then erupts with American mannerisms during Victor’s outbursts.

On a more positive note, Peter Hardie contributes an elegant set, especially with the French doors and stone balustrade of the adjoining hotel rooms in Deauville. Susan Berger and Jan Wanless, too often underappreciated as costumers, needed to make this quartet look like the careless rich of the Lost Generation, and they succeeded, with one elegant gown after another and with the men in their evening wear looking like wedding-cake grooms.

While the rest of this production doesn’t completely keep step with Kevin Connell’s polished impersonation of Coward’s Dashing Chap in a Formal Dinner Jacket, enough of the dance is here to remind us of the effervescent fun that froths out of all those witty champagne glasses in the Land of Noel.


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