April 4, 2012

Can’t Live With Each Other, Can’t Live Without Each Other; Intime Revives “Private Lives,” Noel Coward Romantic Comedy

WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?: Amanda (Maeli Goren) and Elyot (Evan Thompson) are back together again after marriage, divorce, rekindled relationship, and so many skirmishes in between, in Theatre Intime’s production of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” at the Murray Dodge Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 7.

Love, marriage, divorce, remarriage, and repeat — Noel Coward’s 1930 masterpiece of witty repartee and stylish, high society British humor, seems a long way removed from life in the 21st century, but Private Lives, playing in an accomplished Theatre Intime production, retains its wise perspectives on the necessity and impossibility of love and its power to entertain contemporary audiences.

It’s the story of Elyot (Evan Thompson) and Amanda (Maeli Goren), who, after being divorced for five years, find themselves honeymooning with new spouses in adjoining rooms in the same French hotel. The first of three acts takes place on the hotel terrace, as the surprised Elyot and Amanda gradually discover each other’s presence, and quickly realize that they can’t live without each other. They decide to leave their new partners and escape to Paris. Victor (Tadesh Inagaki) and Sybil (Bits Sola), the abandoned spouses, join forces and follow Elyot and Amanda to Paris, where the tumultuously romantic rollercoaster ride of the last two acts ensues in Amanda’s apartment.

Shockingly risqué in its time, the plot, despite the cleverness and rich ironies of the opening scene, is paper thin, and the four main characters, though mostly realistic, are barely three-dimensional, with no backgrounds, employment, family, or interests outside the necessities of the romantic plot. But the central relationship is fascinatingly, frustratingly paradoxical in its volatility, its lust, its abuses — both physical and psychological — and its impossible inevitability.

“I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives,” Amanda tells her confused new husband in the first act. “It all depends on a combination of circumstances. If all the various cosmic thingummys fuse at the same moment, and the right spark is struck, there’s no knowing what one mightn’t do. That was the trouble with Elyot and me, we were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle.”

This feast of Cowardian wit is full of froth, but all that witty badinage, the sharing of a certain flippancy, the refusal — in striking contrast to the sober attitudes of their more mundane counterparts — to take life too seriously, constitutes the essence of Elyot and Amanda’s relationship. This is the lost art of conversation, and — save Shakespeare, Shaw, Wilde, and maybe Tom Stoppard — no one is more artful in this rarefied realm than Noel Coward (Hay Fever, 1925, Blithe Spirit, 1941). Coward wrote Private Lives in four days, then went on to play the role of Elyot, with Gertrude Lawrence and Laurence Olivier, in subsequent successful London and New York runs in 1930-31. It has been revived in the West End and on Broadway many times since.

Mr. Thompson’s Elyot is suitably dashing, high-energy, and refined. He makes the ten-year character stretch with credibility and carries off the emotional requisites of the role — from suave sophistication to exasperation and hysteria to deep affection — with style and commitment.

Ms. Goren’s Amanda, “jagged with sophistication,” is a worthy counterpart, alternately alluring and attacking, romantic and rebellious. Both leads are thoroughly, convincingly in character, but suffer occasional diction lapses. The British-accented, rapid-fire wit occasionally speeds by too rapidly for comprehension, and it’s all too clever and entertaining to allow a single line to get lost.

Mr. Inagaki as the somewhat pompous, buttoned-up new husband to Amanda, and Ms. Sola as a whiny, needy young bride to Elyot are both excellent, on target in their characterizations, and clear and direct in word and action. They serve as effectively convincing, down-to-earth foils to the central duo. As Louise the French maid, Amy Gopinathan provides a timely, deftly humorous walk-on in the third act — a glimmer of perspective from the real world on these eccentric, upper-crust lovers.

Princeton University junior Savannah Hankinson has directed her young — all freshmen and sophomores — cast with intelligence and understanding. The action moves swiftly, with just one intermission, between acts one and two, and a short pause between acts two and three, and the total running time comes in at less than two hours. The staging, including some passionate brawling and physical combat to complement the verbal sparring, is clear and economical.

Michaela Karis’s simple, elegant, symmetrical set designs, enhanced by Laura Hildebrand’s nuanced lighting, effectively reflect the rarefied realm of the play. Sophie Brown’s costumes, a rich array of upscale outfits, including shimmering evening gowns for the ladies and formal wear for the gentlemen, enhance the creation of these characters and their world.

“Selfishness, cruelty, hatred, possessiveness, petty jealousy. All those qualities came out in us just because we loved each other,” Amanda reflects in act one, and she and Elyot agree, “To hell with love,” just before deciding to run off to begin the cycle again. Noel Coward’s Private Lives paints an intriguing portrait of these desperately loving, desperately tortured fools for love, along with some of the cleverest romantic repartee ever written, all brought to life in this fine Theatre Intime production.