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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Guthrie's Private Lives is a flute of bubbly

Noel Coward's comedy, Private Lives at the Guthrie, is a Moet & Chandon Brut, or even a Dom Perignon - certainly a champagne that's sparkling, dry and stylish, and right for a hot summer night.

Set in France in the early 1930s, Coward's comedy sets two English couples on their honeymoon nights in a Deauville hotel on the Normandy coast. Urbane divorcee Elyot is mildly bored by the prospect of life with pretty but conventional Sibyl. In the adjoining room, linked by a moonlit terrace, his ex-wife, svelte Amanda, spars with her gauche new husband, Victor. Inevitably Elyot and Amanda meet, original passions flair with all the fire and brimstone of their first union, and they escape to Montmartre.

It's a lightweight plot but a strong vehicle for the wizardry of Coward's mercurial wit and sleek repartee. Stephen Pelinski as Elyot and Veanne Cox as Amanda take hold of the lovers' lives and make them their own, one minute seducing one another, the next gunning the other down in a volley of words.

Under Peter Rothstein's direction, Pelinski is a worldly Elyot and, in Amanda's challenging company, he catches Elyot's moments of discomfort as a man sparring with a woman who is every inch his equal; it's a nice touch. Less convincing in this manly role is a slight campiness of manner in the opening scene. Cox is deliciously suave as Amanda. Rarely does she make a move that is spontaneous; rather, she drapes her languid self across a chair, poses to best effect in moonlight or against a flattering background in her elegant Paris apartment. She's a creature to be admired: cool, ironic and her own person. Although the intellectual gymnastics between this Elyot and Amanda are as marvelous as fireworks, the physical zing between them feels less immediate.

Kris Nelson and Tracey Malone (actual man and wife) make good foils for their flamboyant stage spouses. In tweedy suits, Nelson finds the foolishness in predictable Victor's expectations; he's a brand-new husband who is just beginning to understand that his wife's sophistication is going to make her impossible to manage. Within Tracey Malone's portrayal of pink and fluffy Sibyl lurks a determined and controlling young woman.

Sally Wingert has scene-stealing moments in the third act as Louise, Amanda's Parisian maid. Wingert's tough-as-boots Louise speaks in a smoky, Piaf-like voice, sneezes liberally, cigarette in situ, and respects no one. Louise's French needs no interpretation; her attitude says it all, and she knows how to clear a cluttered table!

Rich production values flood the senses in this Private Lives. John Arnone's opening set of a hotel balcony comes with Marcus Dilliard's glimmering moonlight and Reid Rejsa's sounds of the sea and gulls. His gorgeous second set of Amanda's extravagantly modern Montmartre apartment, complete with a cubist Sacré Coeur on its hilltop, elicited spontaneous applause on opening night. And costumer Devon Painter clearly enjoyed dressing this elegant period play.

The British accents are good, but to an Englishwoman, this production feels mid-Atlantic rather than British. But that is unfair. In sum, the Guthrie's Private Lives is a fine vintage, delectable to the senses and with a lively finish.

Private Lives, July 21 - September 2 , 2007. Tuesdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m., Sundays 7:00 p.m. Matinees 1: 00 p.m. on selected Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets $24 - $69. 612- 377-2224 or toll free 877-44-STAGE. Guthrie Theater, 818, South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN. 55414. www.guthrietheater.org.


- Elizabeth Weir



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