Private Lives by Noël Coward. Directed by Howard Davies. Sets designed by Tim Hatley. Costumes designed by Jenny Beavan. Lighting designed by Peter Mumford. Sound designed by John Leonard. Starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, with Emma Fielding, Adam Godley, Alex Belcourt.
Ah, the perpetually battling lovers! A true theatre staple if ever there was one. Can anyone underestimate the dramatic possibilities of a man and a woman standing onstage for three hours hurling insults at each other, even as they proclaim their undying love?
Noël Coward was certainly unafraid to mine the possibilities in his 1930 comedy, Private Lives. The two lead characters, Elyot and Amanda (originally intended by Coward for himself and Gertrude Lawrence) hate each other intensely and love each other passionately, frequently at the same time.
The play is a considerable challenge, one that was undertaken by Howard Davies in his recent London production of the show. That production has now arrived in New York with its London cast intact, and while Coward's wit shines as bright as ever, the heat emanating from the stage doesn't threaten the Richard Rodgers Theatre with a conflagration. Those expecting a great lesson in stage chemistry must look elsewhere.
The warring lovers are played by Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan. Both have a keen talent for wrapping their whole bodies around Coward's lines, bringing out a destructive fury with a glance, or starting a steamy embrace with a smoldering word. Coward's environment is a highly charged one where anything can happen, and Rickman and Duncan are unafraid to face the challenges on that turf.
The trouble is, they don't succeed frequently enough for the play to maintain its rich atmosphere of the ultimate on-again/off-again relationship; if the play is first class Coward champagne, this production is always just teetering on the edge of effervescence.
Rickman and Duncan are priceless during the first act when they both discover they are honeymooning not only at the same hotel, but in adjacent rooms. Their facial expressions are hilarious, and the pauses between the lines let the absurdity of the situation wash over the audience. When Amanda and Elyot first take each other again in a painfully familiar embrace, you see the spark of their relationship strike yet again.
It's a shame to discover, only a few minutes later that their relationship is doomed to never move beyond that spark. Their fights, staged by fight coordinator Terry King, are quite good, but their more staunchly passionate moments are lacking. When Elyot and Amanda, at the start of the second act, are experiencing the bliss of the mostly happy few days since they abandoned their spouses, something is amiss; the sexual bonds between the two seem perfunctory at best. You spend all the second act and the first half of the third act wanting to see them fight, because it's the only time they really come alive.
This Private Lives falls victim to that lack of balance. That Rickman and Lindsay seldom seem on the same page is another problem. Duncan is more realistic, Rickman more presentational. Duncan's performance is also more consistent, more sensual and sadistic than his. Rickman is low key almost to the point of apathy, never the destructive playboy the script suggests. This results in a knockout deadpan delivery of some of Coward's zingers, but not much else.
The play's secondary couple actually comes across slightly better. Adam Godley and Emma Fielding as Victor and Sibyl, Amanda and Elyot's spurned spouses, have much less stage time but far fewer ineffective moments. When, at the end of the first and third acts, Fielding and Godley really come together, the results are startling - you see in them what you've wanted to see in Duncan and Rickman all evening long.
The impression this Private Lives presents is that Godley and Fielding were able to find a way to build the relationship between Victor and Sibyl from scratch, but Rickman and Duncan had more trouble establishing Elyot and Amanda's long-standing relationship. Even Alex Belcourt, in her tiny role as a servant, gives a more consistent performance than the two leads, almost stealing the show in her very few lines in the third act.
If Davies's very strong - if ultimately unsuccessful - work feels frustratingly futile, the greater tragedy is the work of Tim Hatley. Hatley provides a gorgeous multi-leveled hotel for the first act, and a flaming red Paris flat in the second and third. Even those sets, with the strong accents provided by Peter Mumford's lighting and Jenny Beavan's costumes, suggest a more exciting world than the struggle enacted there is a part of.
Still, Coward's comic genius cannot easily be muted, even here. This Private Lives may never emerge as a celebration of Coward's work, but it can serve to remind us that even a less than perfect production of one of Coward's great plays can still brim with excitement and joy of the best theatrical kind.