Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Polished Production of Noel Coward's Private Lives

Also see Richard's reviews of Chemical Imbalance, Bingo and After the War

California Conservatory Theatre of San Leandro is presenting a bright production of Noel Coward's 1930s classic Private Lives with Craig Jessup and Milissa Carey giving sparkling performances in the modern farcical comedy of a love/hate relationship.

Private Lives has been a popular play in this country since it first came to the Times Square Theatre on January 27, 1931, with Noel Coward himself playing Elyot and legendary Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda. A young Laurence Oliver played Victor Prynne. It ran a total of 256 performances. Since that time, Coward's entertaining comedy remains a standard of regional and community theatre companies everywhere.

I first saw the play in 1969 at the old Billy Rose Theatre in New York with Tammy Grimes and Brian Bedford in the principal roles.  Since then I have seen the marital farce many times.  Some of the actresses I have seen as the smart and stylish Amanda have been Maggie Smith, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins (who overacted the part as if she were on a MGM movie set) and, recently, in the overblown New York revival, Lindsay Duncan.  I have seen some great actors tackle the role of Elyot, including John Standing, Richard Burton, Simon Jones, Laurence Olivier and Alan Rickman.  

Private Lives is one of the most frivolous plays ever written. Noel Coward himself once dismissed the play and attributed its crowd-pleasing properties to nothing more sophisticated than the titillation factor of references to sex. One of the dangers in presenting Private Lives is in the portrayal of the lead roles. They can't be too real or too broad because the underlying perception beneath the drollness will be lost. Director Michael Ryken has found two actors to play Elyot and Amanda who are exceptional in this fast-paced two-hour fifteen minute production.

Elyot (Craig Jessup) and Amanda (Milissa Carey) are a divorced couple who re-encounter each other while honeymooning with their new spouses, Sibyl (Sylvia Burboeck) and Victor (Fred Sharkey), in the same hotel. The flippant remarks while standing on adjoining balconies of the posh hotel in the south of France have become classic dialogue.   Elyot and Amanda realize that they are still in love with each other and should never have divorced. They abandon their new spouses and run off together to Paris, retreating to a friend's apartment where their relationship becomes love/hate again. Here is where Noel Coward's words really shine, with the glib remarks in conversational confrontations between Elyot and Amanda. The central characters satirize the duplicities and pretentiousness of modern manners and social conventions. Both realize that they can't live with each other and yet they can't live without each other. They will be trapped in an inevitable cycle of love and hate.

Craig Jessup (Craig Jessup sings Noel Coward) is the perfect Elyot. He has the upscale Mayfair accent and his timing is outstanding. He portrays the character as a debonair man whose worries are boiling just below the surface. Milissa Carey's (Putting It Together, Sunday in the Park with George) Amanda is elegant and torpid. The two actors are a perfectly matched couple for verbal confrontations. Craig uses his terrific Noel Coward style voice, singing the verse to "If Love Were All" with Milissa who also has great vocal chops.

Sylvia Burboeck (Picasso at the Lapin Agile) plays Sibyl with the exaggerated nasal tone of a spoiled debutante.  Sibyl tends to do a lot of crying and screaming when she is being browbeaten by Elyot. Burboeck is delightful speaking in her goofy voice a lovely British accent straight out of The Boy Friend.  Fred Sharkey (Sherlock's Last Case) plays a very strong Victor. However, one can see that if Amanda stayed with him, she might get some normalcy but it would be a boring relationship.  Danielle Perata (Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) does what she can with the small role of the French maid Louise.

Director Michael Ryken helms this fast-paced comedy and has added a mock-battle pillow-throwing scene plus a little physical force to make the second act interesting. Costumes by Diane Dahms give Amanda that stylish svelte look.  Ric Koller has devised some nice sets for the small stage.

Private Lives plays at the California Conservatory Theatre at 999 East 14th Street, San Leandro through April 22nd.  For tickets call 510-632-8850 or email  Their next production will be the British farce by Marc Camoletti, Don't Dress for Dinner.

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

- Richard Connema

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