Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Private Lives
Walnut Street Theatre


Kathleen Wallace and Greg Wood
I was sitting in the audience at the Walnut Street Theatre watching their new production of Noël Coward's Private Lives when the protagonist, Elyot Chase, told his verbal (and sometimes physical) sparring partner Amanda Prynne "You are the most thrilling, exciting woman that was ever born."

A few moments later, I heard someone a few rows away from me snoring. I'm guessing that person did not share Elyot's opinion of Amanda.

That sums up the Walnut's production of Coward's classic 1930 comedy for me. In the right hands—as in Lantern Theater's 2011 production starring a blissfully blasé Ben Dibble and Geneviève Perrier—Private Lives can be a sparkling gem. But at the Walnut, nothing sparkles (except designer Robert Koharchik's gorgeous art deco set for act two). For most of director Bob Carlton's production, the bloom is off this English rose.

As Private Lives opens, Elyot and Amanda have been divorced five years and have each just remarried. Unfortunately, they end up booking honeymoon suites next door to each other, and when they spot each other on their adjoining terraces, they begin sniping at each other, just like old times. Pretty soon, though, old passions are rekindled, and Elyot and Amanda sneak away together, leaving their stuffy new spouses wondering what's gone wrong. Meanwhile, life for the newly reunited Elyot and Amanda is as stormy as it ever was; one minute they're making madly romantic declarations of love, and the next they're violently upending the furniture. They may drive each other bonkers, but at least they don't bore each other.

The verbal bombs that Elyot and Amanda hurl back and forth are Private Lives' most deservedly famous feature. They're the sort of lines that made Coward's reputation as the brightest wit of his era. But there's no snap to the dialogue here. Carlton fills scenes with long pauses that kill a great deal of the comedy. Many of the laughs come from physical gags that Carlton has added—Amanda repeatedly pulling away Victor's pipe as he's trying to light it, or Elyot's pompadour bobbing up and down as he shakes, or Elyot devouring his breakfast like a ravenous dog. But these are cheap laughs that seem out of place amid Coward's bon mots.

Miscasting in the central roles doesn't help. Greg Wood doesn't project the right air of resigned Continental refinement as Elyot; he seems more concerned with where to place his cocktail glass than with how to land his punchlines. Meanwhile, Kathleen Wallace has the essential elegance and sex appeal for Amanda, but she seems to be in a world of her own, never connecting with anyone around her. If Elyot and Amanda don't care about each other, it's hard to care about them. (The audience seemed more shocked than amused at some of the pair's more archly vicious lines, such as "Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.") Lauren Sowa is excellent as Elyot's petulant new wife Sibyl, while Dan Hodge fares best as Amanda's endearingly obtuse new husband Victor. Still, when the best thing about a production of Private Lives is Victor, something's out of whack.

Costume designer Mark Mariani has created sharp suits for the men, but several of his dresses for Amanda have bizarre, garish splashes of color. Nevertheless, at least they're not dull, which is more than you can say for most of this production.

Private Lives runs through March 1, 2015, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $20 - $95, with premium seating available, and are available online at www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by phone (800) 982-2787.


Photo: Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy


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