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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Playhouse West Production of Noel Coward's Private Lives is So Very, Very British

Also see Richard's reviews of Annie and Mapplethorpe: The Opening

Private Lives
Greg Baglia and Amy Kay Raymond
Playhouse West opens its 11th season with Noel Coward's sophisticated comedy of manners, Private Lives. The play is at the Knights 3 intimate theatre at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek through September 24th.

I guess you could say I am a Noel Coward aficionado, having loved his plays since I was in high school. Coward wrote Private Lives in 1930 and it is probably his most popular play. Coward himself once dismissed the play and attributed its crowd pleasing properties to nothing more sophisticated than the titillation factor of references to sex.

Private Lives had its American premiere in 1931 with Coward himself playing Elyot and Gertrude Lawrence playing the captivating Amanda. A young Laurence Olivier played Victor. MGM bought the rights and made a film in the same year with Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery. My first viewing of this charming play was in 1969 when I saw Tammy Grimes and Brian Bedford play the major roles at the old Billy Rose Theatre.

Since that time I have seen the marital farce eight times, both here and in the United Kingdom. I recall Maggie Smith, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins and more recently Lindsay Duncan playing Amanda. I have seen John Standing, Richard Burton, Simon Jones and Alan Rickman play Elyot.

Private Lives involves hormones fizzing with some of most flippant remarks you will ever hear in a play. It's the story of the love and hate relationship of Amanda (Amy Kay Raymond) and Elyot (Greg Baglia), a divorced couple who re-encounter each other while honeymooning with their new spouses in the same hotel. The first act is the most famous of Coward's plays, with crisp language between the two as they stand on their balconies overlooking the Mediterranean. The conversation has become classic dialogue; the line about the Taj Mahal looking like a picture on a biscuit box is priceless.

The second meeting of these two adversaries finds the old flame suddenly reigniting, and they leave their new spouses, Sibyl (Kelli Tager) and Victor (Gillen Morrison), and retreat to Amanda's secret apartment in Paris. It becomes a love/hate relationship once again. It appears they can't live with each other and yet they cannot live without each other. The second act is a roller coaster of emotions and they constantly quarrel about mundane things. Can love survive in this atmosphere, especially with Sibyl and Victor showing up suddenly in the second act? This is how the great Noel Coward titillates the audience.

Amy Kay Raymond (Forces of Nature and a Los Angeles actress) does very well with the Coward style of acting. She has refined the role of Amanda with her own special talent. She does not overact or camp the performance. She brings depth to the character. Greg Baglia (recently completed a one man tour in the states in Didn't I Order Pastrami? and real life husband of Amy) has a more difficult time with Elyot. His readings of some of the sophisticated lines, like the brittle words in the first act, do not come over as truly Coward. The second act scenes of the quarrels seem petulant on his part. He is more of a spoiled child than a man of the world.

The hapless second spouses are usually treated as one-dimensional characters for the leads to kick about. However, Gillen Morrison (Sacramento actor) seems to knock that characterization into right field. He is a very strong Victor and probably could give Elyot a run for his money. Usually Victor is a weak and unfortunate person but Gillen, who looks like a very tall Jimmy Stewart, comes across as a man who knows what he wants. Kelli Tager (Los Angeles actress appeared in Playhouse West's Forces of Nature) seems like a spoiled cry baby and she cries oh so many times, making you want to yell to her to shut up. Tager is a talented actress, but here she offers a one-dimensional character given to crying jags. Jennifer Dean who plays the French maid Louise does what she can with the small role of serving tea and speaking French.

Director Lois Grandi has helmed a fast-paced and athletic production, especially the "fight scene" at the end of the second act. It seems that the two second spouses have become major characters in the balcony scene which was distinctly different from the London/New York recent revival. The background music in that scene is Gershwin's "Embraceable You" rather than Noel Coward's lovely love song of which Elyot asks "Why do they keep playing that cheap song over and over again?"

Doug Ham has devised a great dual balcony for the first act. It looks very luxurious with a steel railing at the base. The lighting by Robert Anderson is also first rate for the small intimate stage. Costumes by Cynthia Sarmiento are period 1930s, although the silk dressing grown on Elyot in the second act is too tight. I give Grandi courage for tackling a Noel Coward play with American actors to show us the mores of the upper class British society of the '30s according to the great Noel Coward.

Private Lives plays at Knights 3 Theatre in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts through September 24. Tickets can be obtained by calling 925-943-SHOW(7469). For more information please go to www.playhousewest.org.



Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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