In the hands of a master dramatist like Noël Coward, even the carryings-on and complaints of married couples become alluring enough to wring laughs even from those wounded by love.
Although PlayMakers' revival of Coward's 1929 Private Lives includes an ensemble of actor/ singers to fill it out, the show is all about Elyot and Sibyl Chase and Victor and Amanda Prynne. Mostly, it's about Elyot and Amanda. As this classic battle of the sexes begins, the newly married Chases and Prynnes are starting their respective honeymoons in adjacent hotel suites in the south of France. unbeknownst to each other. It's a second marriage for Elyot and Amanda, and unfortunately for them and luckily for us, their first marriage was to each other. Five years of divorce, it turns out, has not been enough to put out the fire between them.
PlayMakers has mounted this show just in time to take advantage of company members Julie Fishell and Jeffrey Blair Cornell's well-developed comic energy in the leads. They're getting a bit old for these roles, but they compensate with their mastery of Coward's zippy flippancy and modernist convention-busting, as well as their fabulous physicality.
People running off with each other's spouses for their own pleasure and convenience, others be damned, is something we've grown used to. Part of what surprises about this play, 85 years later, is the frisson of shock at Amanda and Elyot's behavior. They've both married nice, suitable, boring people, intending to settle down into placid lives. But the Prynnes are willing to throw over their new spouses with barely a second thought for those nice people.
Private Lives is clever not only because these shenanigans are contrary to social rules, but because they are recognizably part of the human will: an innate drive to be freely and unreservedly who we are. One could say Private Lives is a 20th-century version of the timeless, ever-comic battle between the Bacchanalians and the Apollonians. Here, the Apollonians don't come off so well; the truant spouses in silk pajamas, drinking out of fruit bowls and dancing on the furniture, fighting and loving and sneaking out of the ruins, clearly have the better time. Draw your own moral.
Guest actors Tom Coiner and Kristen Mengelkoch as Victor and Sibyl are fine (although Mengelkoch is often difficult to understand when she's shrill, her voice not projecting well from the thrust stage). Their niceness, stodginess and unrelenting curiosity about their new spouses' previous spouses provide all the fuel needed for the conflagration between Elyot and Amanda. Elsewhere in the cast, Tania Chelnov has a hilarious turn as Louise, the French maid, and ensemble member Caroline Strange has a lovely singing moment.
Directed by Sean Daniels, with an elegant set designed by Michael Raiford, wonderful costumes by guest artist Jennifer Caprio and on-stage piano music by Mark Lewis, this public turn-out of the private lives of two couples tingles like the champagne foam on hot skin.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Let's pretend we're married."