Private Lives

Richard Rodgers Theater - June 2002

Review by John Kenrick

Private Lives, 2002Every now and then, along comes a production that reminds me why I fell in love with the theater. This imported revival of Private Lives that took London by storm last year is a ravishing fulfillment of everything one hopes for in a Broadway show – brilliant material, dazzling production values, and actors who place their hearts and souls into their characters.

The material is Noel Coward's timeless 1930 comedy about Amanda and Elyot, high society divorcees who reunite and abandon their new spouses (Victor and Sybil) on the first night of their honeymoons. Designed as a triumphant vehicle for Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, this insightful look at the war between the sexes has been revived periodically by some of the biggest names in the business. For several years, the unlikely casting of Tallulah Bankhead as Amanda packed houses all across the country. The now legendary teaming of Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in the 1970's was a glamorous fiasco, and many will recall the trashy Joan Collins tour that snuck in and out of town a while back.

This time, we get a cast and production team who know how to make Coward's vintage genius shine. Director Howard Davies sees to it that every contribution is stylish and fresh, all the while making sure that nothing gets in the way of the material. Jenny Beavan's costumes are flawless embodiments of each character's style, from the flowing lines of Elyot's satin lounging pajamas to Victor's rough, bulky tweed suits. Tim Hatley's gorgeous sets are the visual highlights of the Broadway season, deftly enlivened by Peter Mumford's lighting. Special kudos to Terry King for staging the hilarious fight scenes in a way that adds so much to the overall impact of the show.

It has been some time since Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncantook both London and New York by storm in Les Liasons Dangereuses, and time has only deepened the exquisite stage chemistry they share. Their approach is fresh, sexy and absolutely right. We could easily envy the fun they are obviously having onstage if we weren't having so much damn fun watching the two of them! They provide moments that are guaranteed to live in the memory – the casual elegance in every move, the familiar passion and the familiar rage they set off in each other. Those who want to see what sophisticated romantic comedy is all about are strongly advised to catch these two before this limited run ends. Performances like this are too rare to miss, and we'll be talking about this pair in these roles for years to come.

(And let it be noted that Mr. Rickman delivers a touching rendition of Coward's "If Love Were All" in the second act. Ms. Duncan's "Someday I'll Find You" is less musically pleasing, but dramatically right on the money.)

The hapless second spouses are usually treated as one-dimensional targets for the leads to kick about, but not this time. Emma Fielding and Adam Godley handle Sibyl and Victor with such humanity that we actually care about them – no small achievement. Alex Belcourt invests her brief moments as the disgruntled French maid with such physical brio (and flawless French improvs) that one hopes to see more of all three of these newcomers on Broadway.

This Private Lives is Broadway at its finest, delivering the kind of live, high style thrill that no other entertainment form or venue can quite match. Manny Azenberg and his co-producers did us all a grand favor by making sure this production crossed the Atlantic. Oh, the joy of great theater in the hands of top talents! At times like this, you don't mind ticket prices – nothing beats the glory of professional theater. Coward would be proud to see his masterpiece in such superb hands.

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