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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Private Lives and
Charlotte's Web

Private Lives
Ben Dibble and Geneviève Perrier
Noel Coward's Private Lives is a comedy about two people who live for the passionate extremes of life, whether they're whispering sweet witticisms in each other's ear or walloping each other with pillows (or worse). Coward's dialogue reeks of class and cleverness, but Lantern Theater's production never seems stuffy. It's a breezy and enjoyable take on a classic comedy.

The 1930 play is about Amanda and Elyot, a tempestuous divorced couple who run into each other while on honeymoon with their new spouses. They do all they can to avoid each other, but pretty soon they're falling into each other's arms and ditching the new spouses so they can run off together. While they drive each other batty, deep down they find each other as irresistible as they find themselves. They can be casually cruel to each other, but they save their greatest invective for the rest of the world, which they know can never reach their high standards. Elyot even tells Amanda's dense new husband, "I think I'm a bit cleverer than you, but that's not saying much." Amanda, meanwhile, bristles at being told how women should or should not behave; for her, a life of indulgence seems as perfectly natural for her as it would for a man.

Amanda and Elyot can't stand each other, but they can't resist each other either. And while they fall into petty sniping when they first see each other, that soon turns into declarations of desire, which then leads back to insults, then escalates into cartoonish violence—and then the cycle begins again. Director Kathryn MacMillan stages it all with a firm hand, never letting the bickering and brutality become boring.

Ben Dibble and Geneviève Perrier play off each other beautifully as Elyot and Amanda, sharp and sophisticated but never letting their bon mots become brittle. Dibble and Perrier never seem like they are showing off—the wit seems to pour out of them naturally. It's easy to root for them. K.O. DelMarcelle is blithely clueless as Elyot's new wife Sybil, while Leonard C. Haas comes close to stealing the show as Amanda's new husband Victor. With his deadpan, humorless expression, Haas plays Victor as someone who is always a step behind his wife in more ways than one. When she disappears at the end of act one, he calls her name with a lack of urgency that reveals just why he'll never be part of her world.

Victor's suits—always just a little too bulky for him—contrast nicely with the chic attire of the rest of the cast, thanks to Mark Mariani's astute costumes. Meghan Jones' sets add to the sense of glamor.

The Lantern's Private Lives moves effortlessly between biting wit and actual biting. There's lots of style and spirit to go around.

Private Lives runs through December 31, 2011, and is presented by Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets. Ticket prices range from $20 to $36 and may be purchased by calling the Box Office at 215-829-0395, or online at www.lanterntheater.org.


Charlotte's Web
Aubie Merrylees and Sarah Gliko
As Charlotte's Web begins, a troupe of actors ambles onto the vast mainstage at the Arden Theatre charged with a difficult task: How do you convince a large audience—made up mostly of children—that they're on a rural farm when they're really in a big city? The huge wooden barn frame looming overhead helps, but it's just not enough. So actor Anthony Lawton calls out to the technicians in the rear of the hall: Could we have some early morning light? A few seconds later, the lighting takes on just the right soft glow. How about some early morning sounds? Sounds of the countryside slowly coming to life fill the air. All that's left is for the actors to transform themselves into farmers, farmhands, and farm animals—which they do without outlandish costumes. It's all done with delicate suggestion, yet it all becomes astonishingly convincing. And it helps make the Arden's Charlotte's Web such a lovely way to spend a couple hours.

Director Whit MacLaughlin's warm-hearted production of E.B. White's classic tale (adapted by Joseph Robinette) makes the rural milieu almost tangible—sometimes with audience participation, and sometimes not. A group of goslings is portrayed by seven tots, all recruited from the audience quickly and with little fuss. A game of Whac-a-Mole at a county fair is acted out with help from two kids who get pulled out of the audience to slap the actors with inflatable hammers. And when the actors want to convince us we're in a field of lavender, they pick up fans soaked in lavender oil and wave them at the audience. In the most soothing and subtle way imaginable, the actors make the audience part of their community.

That community feeling extends to the performances, with an endearing feeling of warmth exuding from the actors. Aubie Merrylees portrays Wilbur, the piglet who grows up before our eyes, with wide-eyed wonder. Whether he's burrowing in the dirt or rolling in straw, he attacks every moment with exuberance. But Wilbur is in peril from the start—he's the runt of the litter who faces an early demise before others step in to help him. First it's farm girl Fern (Emilie Krause), who makes Wilbur her pet. Then he gets support from a whole barnyard full of animals, each with its own little quirks, each conceived with an inventive twist. Charlie DelMarcelle and Leah Walton transform from farmers into geese just by adding feed caps to their heads, a waddle to their steps, and some offbeat vocal tics. Lawton switches from a slow-witted farmhand into a sneaky rat by putting on a wool cap, fingerless gloves, rose-colored glasses, and a trenchcoat, plus a grimace and a snarl. (Rosemarie K. McKelvey's costumes add just the right naturalistic touch, and the same goes for David P. Gordon's set and Drew Billiau's lighting.)

After the animals try their best, it's Charlotte the spider who ends up saving Wilbur's bacon. Sarah Gliko's Charlotte descends from the rafters on a rope and a grappling hook, wearing a black and red bodysuit that seems as catlike as it is arachnidian. Gliko's steely, focused performance helps keep the show from choking on too much whimsy.

Charlotte's Web touches on some big issues, including death and sacrifice, but kids won't find it sad or heavy-handed. And neither will you. Like Wilbur, once you get to Mr. Zuckerman's farm, you'll want to stay there.

Charlotte's Web runs through February 3, 2012, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $16 to $30 (with discounts available for groups and children) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, or online at www.ardentheatre.org.


Photos by Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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