Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Private Lives
Ross Valley Players
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's reviews of Monsoon Wedding, Smut: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson) and The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd and Patrick's review of August: Osage County

Laura Morgan, Gregory Crane, LeAnne Rumbel,
and Simon Patton

Photo by Robin Jackson
The Germans have a word for it, schadenfreude, defined most memorably in Avenue Q as "happiness at the misfortune of others." The current production on the boards at Ross Valley Players' Barn Theatre, Noël Coward's Private Lives, offers something that is close to schadenfreude but also its polar opposite: unhappiness at the good fortune of others.

You see, the characters populating Private Lives are wealthy, entitled, upper-class Brits whom we first meet during their honeymoons in a luxury hotel on the Riviera, facing the towering first world problem of whether to eat in the hotel or amble over to the casino for dinner. On Ken Rowland's lovely set, newlyweds Elyot (Gregory Crane) and Sibyl (Laura Morgan) occupy a balcony suite stage right, while the suite to their left is home to the other pair of honeymooners, Victor (Simon Patton) and Amanda (LeAnn Rumbel). To quote a blog post I read recently, they are like "beggars sitting on beaches of gold." The opportunity for happiness is all around them, but they ignore its presence and instead embrace bitterness, resentment and betrayal—all while maintaining a façade of snarky wit.

The biggest problem these couples share is that Elyot and Amanda were once married to each other and, as Elyot says in the first scene, before he learns his ex-wife is in the very next room with her new husband, "We made each other miserable." Now Elyot has Sibyl and their protestations of happiness ("Of course I am. Tremendously happy ... Incredibly, magnificently glad.") are mixed with bickering and comparisons of his two wives.

When Amanda appears on the balcony as Elyot is laying down a tray of champagne cocktails, the band strikes up a tune that both begin to hum, calling attention to each other's presence and putting the plot into real motion. Obviously, Elyot and Amanda will fall into each other's snares again, the only question is how, and how soon. And why, for they can't seem to go more than a few lines without sniping at each other.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton famously played Amanda and Elyot in a limited Broadway run in 1983 that ran for just 63 performances. Burton and Taylor had already been married and divorced twice by that time, so the baggage they brought to the roles (not to mention their experience in sniping at and bickering with each other) must have made for some explosive onstage chemistry. I doubt Crane or Rumbel have a romantic history with each other, but they nonetheless interact in a very natural state of emotional combat. Patton and Morgan also deliver the goods with their portrayals of the new spouses burnt by old flames.

This is, overall, an excellent production: the acting is strong, the sets (especially in act two) are marvelous, the costuming (by Janice Koprowski) is spot on and period perfect. It's Coward's play itself that is dragging things down. It's a bit creaky and old-fashioned, and probably 20 minutes too long. There are some wonderfully funny lines: "... it's chance that we're here, particularly after your driving." "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is." But there's that pall of unhappiness hanging over everything that undercuts what should be charming about the play. I suppose one could revel (as happens often in drama) at the unhappiness of those whom fortune has blessed more than it has us. But for a modern sensibility where lines like "Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs" stand out as sanctioning spousal abuse, Private Lives fails to live up to the promise of its wit.

Private Lives, through June 18, 2017, at the Barn Theatre, located in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $27 general admission, and $15 for children under 18 and students with valid high school or college ID. Thursday night tickets are $22 for adults and $12 for children and students. Tickets can be ordered by calling 415-456-9555, ext. 1 or visiting

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