Playwright Noel Coward was notable for many reasons: He could sing, act, direct, write. He also made a lot of money with his theatrical career during the Great Depression—a striking achievement in and of itself.
Thanks to Main Street Theater, we have the thrill of seeing Private Lives, one of his most popular plays and a comedy of manners that borders on satire. Under Claire Hart-Palumbo’s deft direction, we see the tumultuous relationship between Amanda and Elyot, who are divorced from each other and remarried to others. They coincidentally run into each other at a hotel terrace in France; both are honeymooning there with their new spouses. Suffice it to say that hilarity ensues, and the audience witnesses the vicissitudes of their relationship. It is quite the roller coaster. Hart-Palumbo directs this in a theater-in-the-round configuration, which is perfect for a couple that goes around and around and around.
This three-act play requires much of the actors, and all of them deliver. Houston favorite Elizabeth Marshall Black plays Amanda, a role that requires the glibness of a comedienne as well as the physical dexterity and delivery that hinges on an impeccable sense of timing. Black has an enormous range as an actress, and it was a pleasure to watch her embody a certain set of mannerisms that harken to a bygone age. After all, this is also a period piece.
Black is costumed in sexy negligees, stunning evening wear, chic drop-waisted dresses. She declares “I have always been sophisticated—far too knowing!” Hello, Daisy Fay Buchanan and the reminder that the rich are different from you and me! The French art-deco-ish/art nouveau sets, the English accents (thank you, dialect coach Carolyn Johnson), and the wonderful 20th-century costumes (designed by Rebecca Greene Udden) all come together in a perfect cocktail of chic, glamour, emotional excess, and angst. It’s a lot of fun to watch.
Alan Brinks plays Elyot Chase, Amanda’s former husband, and newly wedded to Sibyl, played by the engaging Skyler Sinclair. Brinks is the perfect blend of sophistication and a weird version of English trashiness. Yes, a kind of Eurotrash that looks good at a party but regresses into verbal and physical abuse at the slightest irritation. We kind of get Amanda’s sick attraction to him, as it is mutual. Amanda has her own issues and retaliates when he starts dishing it out. I think we might have called this the “War Between the Sexes” in the olden days.
It seems kind of shocking to watch in the era of #MeToo, but Coward’s play does not show emotional and or physical violence as limited to males; on the contrary, he dramatizes it as something that it part of the “private lives” of a certain strata of British upper class adults who have the time and leisure to be super-dramatic and throw temper tantrums any time something isn’t perfect. It is uncomfortable to watch at times, but necessary to show how immaturity combined with intense passion might make for a really ugly relationship, albeit one with excitement.
Brinks (who was excellent in MST’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley) is completely believable in this role, which is really saying something, as the premise of this entertaining play is so ridiculous. Sinclair is well-cast in this role: a younger, more naïve woman who is unprepared for dealing with the difficult Elyot but can still belt out a zinger with the best of them. I loved it when she was trying to defend her mother to her new husband, saying “She’s a darling—underneath!” She must deal with Elyot’s often shocking level of misogyny, as when he describes his ex-wife as “marked for tragedy” and telling her directly that her voice takes on an “acid quality” when she is around him. Well, that might be true for anyone if they hook up with Elyot.
Joel F. Grothe plays Victor Prynne, and if you missed him in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies at MST, well, what can I say? You missed out. He is the most reasonable character in the play, and he plays this role well. It is only at the end that he is at the end of his tether—but who can blame him? He slides into exasperation with ease, and it is funny and entertaining to watch.
What struck me the most about Private Lives—the title of which surfaces when Amanda confesses that “I’m not so sure I’m normal” and that maybe no one is normal “deep down in their private lives”—is how Coward does a pretty interesting psychological assessment of the wages of love, and suggests that the most intense attractions are toxic, and the headiness of being in love leads to being “fools” who ruin relationships. Well, uh, sometimes yes.
The funniest moments in the play happen when characters are lying—covering up the truth of their private lives. Our desires, the play posits, are boring if pure, and lead to “wickedness” if they are passionate. Amanda’s Paris apartment is decorated with images from Klimt’s The Kiss, and you can help but think of all that depends on one kiss, and the drama and trauma of Klimt’s own life—a great touch by set designer Dylan Marks.
All the characters have some great one-liners, such as Amanda chiding Elyot that “It doesn’t suit men for women to be promiscuous!” Despite the physical violence between these characters, you can’t help but kind of root for the dysfunctional Amanda and Elyot. They even have a “safe word” to use when arguing to keep their train from running off the rails when arguing. It’s like watching a Jerry Springer re-run, but you are drinking champagne. This play might be likened to the way Time once described Noel Coward himself, as having “a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise,” so go ahead and take a seat: it’s always fun to watch someone else’s Private Lives.
Through August 11. Tickets from $10. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706. More info and tickets at mainstreettheater.com.