The Guthrie’s production of Noël Coward’s smart romp Private Lives should have been wonderful. In fact, I don’t know why it wasn’t. It had everything going for it. The actors were outstanding. Peter Rothstein’s stylized direction was inventive and playful, and the sets and costumes were divine. Peter Moore choreographed a deliciously ridiculous fight scene that included people breaking phonograph records over each other’s heads. What’s not to love? Maybe I inadvertently left my sense of humor in the parking garage.
Veanne Cox plays Amanda Prynne, an imperious, manipulative, and sexually irresistible divorcée. The play begins on the day she arrives at the Deauville, France, resort she’s staying at for her honeymoon with her new husband, Victor Prynne (Kris L. Nelson). This is the same day that Elyot Chase—Amanda’s droll, self-assured ex—arrives at the exact same Deauville, France, resort, where he’s staying for his honeymoon with his new spouse. Better yet, their rooms share the same veranda (Above, photo by Michal Daniel). When Amanda and Elyot discover the situation, trouble ensues.
Both Amanda and Elyot (a divine Stephen Pelinski) have devoted a considerable amount of time to bad-mouthing their exes and thus refuse to tell their new partners about what’s happened. Instead, Elyot and Amanda balk, preen, panic, and flirt. Realizing their all-consuming passion is as red-hot as ever, they ultimately decide to run off with each other. It’s so wrong, but it feels so good!
Meanwhile, Elyot’s new wife, Sybil—pretty-in-pink Tracey Maloney—is half his age and not very smart. (That’s why he married her.) Victor, Amanda’s nebbish husband, is naïve and forgiving. That’s probably why Amanda married him. When Sybil and Victor figure out they’ve been ditched, they go searching for their egocentric other halves.
In the meantime, Elyot and Amanda have holed up in an opulent Parisian suite. Their relationship is as volatile, feisty, and sexually charged as ever. Just as in real life, passion doesn’t always inspire domestic bliss, and much of the rest of the play consists of physical and verbal barbs (some subtle, some not), played with relish by Cox and Pelinski. Their chemistry and comedic precision propel the play toward its climax, which includes a brilliant cameo by Sally Wingert, who arrives via elevator in a cloud of smoke muttering unintelligibly in French.
To get back to my initial question: what’s not to love? For me, personally, the script itself might be the problem. I appreciate Noël Coward’s wit, but the plot and characters just didn’t grab me the way I wished they would. If Rothstein could use the same cast for Blithe Spirit (another classic Coward farce, with a similar plot but involving a dead ex-wife and all sorts of hokie malarkey), I’d be a very happy theatergoer indeed. Maybe next season?