Also see Zander's review of The Wiz
The play opens during the early 1930s on the coast of France. Cute, blonde Sybil (Jenni Barber) and dark, angular Elyot (Ken Barnett) were recently married. Appearing on a nearby balcony are Victor (Henry Clarke) and his new wife Amanda (Rachel Pickup). Amanda and Elyot used to be married but then divorced and enjoyed the company of others. The formula: together, apart, and soon to be together again.
Dodge's ingenious exterior, including both hotel terraces, enables Amanda and Elyot, spotting one another, to literally step over railings and very much rekindle a passionate relationship. They make plans to flee together and find a place in Paris. Of course, this leaves the jilted Sybil and Victor to cope.
Tresnjak has wisely chosen to stage this production without intermission; it lasts 95 minutes or so. The stage, midway through, revolves to reveal a splendid, glitzy interior suite where Amanda lives in Paris. The flooring is black and white, the doors wooden, while the furniture is period perfect: very Art Deco. Costumer Joshua Pearson provides Elyot with a garish robe while Amanda wears a stylish navy blue bedroom outfit. These two like to smoke cigarettes and one imagines them consuming quite a bit of alcohol. They are fiercely drawn to one another but their arguments are monumental. Punching, grappling, and even using firearms is not out of the question. Fight director J. Allen Suddeth deserves a significant mention for sharing his expertise. Actors Barnett, playing Elyot, and Pickup, as Amanda, create a chemistry which flies from hot to icy and so on. He is also an adept pianist which he proves when playing, with virtuosity, the grand piano on stage. Barnett is a versatile and skilled actor and willowy, elegant Pickup seems an ideal physical mate for him. They cannot live apart yet when together, sooner or later, they will quarrel without restraint and without inhibition. The combustible characters grab early attention and it is terrific fun to watch and maybe anticipate each and every move. Barnett and Pickup are splendid.
Eventually, Sybil and Victor, carrying suitcases, arrive in Paris and it becomes a time for observers to guess who might end up with whom as the final curtain approaches. Coward sets up Sybil to look foolish as she clings to her current man. Victor is fittingly tight.
Carine Montbertrand rounds out the cast as Louise the maid, a bit bewildered by it all but quite hilarious.
Coward's satire, filled with many a laughable moment, could be laced with real conflict. Tresnjak's interpretation of the play pushes the characters toward types who cannot be taken seriously. The playwright is wonderfully clever and his dialogue could allow for audience contemplation regarding marriage's promise or problematic outcome. The Hartford Stage rendering moves quickly and effectively but it does not leave the opportunity for that sort of consideration. Still, this is brisk, quality theaterpacked with laughs. It does not really offer a second dimension.
Private Lives continues at Hartford Stage through February 8th, 2015 For tickets, call the box office at (860) 527-515 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.
- Fred Sokol