Private Lives

Laird Mackintosh, Victoria Mack, Michael Brusasco and Amanda Leigh Cobb
Private Lives may be Noel Coward's most produced, and most popular play. After a 1930 debut in Edinburgh, followed by a tour of England and a limited (and sold out) West End run the same year, Private Lives opened on Broadway, bringing along two of the original leads, Coward himself and Laurence Olivier. There have been seven revivals on Broadway, featuring stars from Tallulah Bankhead to Maggie Smith to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. It is a three-act comedy featuring characters who are alternately sophisticated and insufferable, passionately treading the line between love and hate. The script is chockful of Coward bon mots which require a particular delivery in order to be truly appreciated. Unfortunately, in many cases, that delivery is not present in the Public's new production.

Be it direction or acting, there's a sense of "trying too hard" in this production, and that is a sure way to ruin a Coward line. Michael Brusasco (Elyot), in particular, seems to push rather than caress the dialogue; a few potent pauses would be welcome. His Amanda, Victoria Mack, is much more successful with her role, but without the right partner to bounce off of, the necessary chemistry is missing. Their passionate connection should be palpable. Otherwise, they are two people saying very clever lines. Ted Pappas' quick pacing can work for this play, but variable speed works better than full speed ahead.

Private Lives (at less than two hours here, a shorter version than some) follows four intertwined people. Elyot and Amanda were married, but are now divorced. They are both remarried—Elyot to Sybil (Amanda Leigh Cobb) and Amanda to Victor (Laird Mackintosh). The newlywed couples discover, even before the wedding night, that they are beginning their honeymoons in adjacent rooms in a hotel in France. The adjoining balconies provide a setting for the first act interactions between spouses, both current and ex. To describe acts two and three would require giving away the ending of act one and, just in case you don't know it, I'll protect it, as it is best discovered in person. Suffice to say, there is both love and hate in the air, each tempering the other. It seems not a single one of these characters can stand to be in the same room as any one of the others (and an observer might feel the same), and their animosity is not only emotional, but physical as well (no worries—the sparring is evenly matched). But, of course, it's clear they cannot live without each other either.

I'm not sure I've ever found flaw in a James Noone set, but I feel he's hamstrung within the restrictions of the O'Reilly's small thrust stage (not to mention we are robbed of a curtain-up reveal of the second set). The intimacy of the space may indeed contribute to the overall problems with this production. Perhaps the counter-effectiveness of the slightly broad acting choices are magnified.

There are some highlights, including a perfectly shaded performance by Mackintosh, whose Victor is no fool. Cobb is a different Sybil than I've seen, and she conveys the sheltered and rather clueless nature of the character well. To complete a report on the full cast, Elena Alexandratos nails the deadpan and unflappable French maid as expected (though I believe the part is truncated in this version).

Andrew B. Marlay's gorgeous and character-illuminating costumes are a joy, Phil Monat's lighting design is a plus, and Randy Kovitz' fight direction is in admirable evidence.

The brilliance of Noel Coward is not easily carried from page to stage, and the nuances required are not quite present in this production. It is still Coward, and there are talented people involved in this production, so it is not a disaster, but those who have enjoyed a sparkling version of Private Lives may find this one to be rather flat.

Private Lives continues through June 24 at the O'Reilly Theater for Pittsburgh Public Theater. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit

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-- Ann Miner

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