‘Private Lives’: Old flames reignite in smart Lansburgh revival of Coward’s comedy


James Waterston as Elyot and Bianca Amato as Amanda in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Noël Coward’s “Private Lives,” directed by Maria Aitken. (Scott Suchman)

That breeze wafting through the Lansburgh Theatre is the air of soigne craftsmanship, borne on the currents of director Maria Aitken’s suavely attired revival of Noel Coward’s evergreen comedy, “Private Lives.”

She has guided an appealing quintet of actors — and especially, Bianca Amato and James Waterston — through a textbook production of Coward’s droll, three-act entertainment, concerning a sophisticated pair whose idea of love survives on a scalding dose of the opposite.

The sexual charge that’s sustained on attraction compounded by antipathy is a theme for romantic comedy as old as “Much Ado’s” Benedick and Beatrice. Coward’s Amanda and Elyot — who derive less pleasure from the touch of each other’s skin, than from getting under it — are themselves the template for a passel of subsequent film, stage and television couples who’ve found making up even more arousing than making out.

Aitken, who shepherded Broadway’s spoof of Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” to much acclaim, is on far firmer ground with “Private Lives” than she was for her last venture for the Shakespeare Theatre Company: a tortured, Hollywood-celebrating “As You Like It” in 2009 that got lost in its own overreaching conceits. Her handling of “Private Lives” underlines rather than undermines the supple, comic strength of the text.

Don’t let “three acts” intimidate you: The play careens merrily, and fleetly, through the brittle skirmishes that ensue after Amato’s Amanda and Waterston’s Elyot, five years miserably divorced, wind up in adjoining hotel suites in the south of France with their far less appealing new spouses. The sleek Amanda finds herself saddled with stick-in-the-mud Victor (Jeremy Webb), and dapper Elyot has settled for a clingy crybaby, Sybil (Autumn Hurlbert).

This Victor and Sybil are just vanilla enough for us to see why they’d soon prove unsavory to cravers of passion fruit like Amanda and Elyot. Still nursing the wounds from their own marriage, they’ve picked Victor and Sybil, it seems, just to give themselves a breather.

On Allen Moyer’s elegant set of twin balconies, the classic “Private Lives” environment, we begin to see that this Amanda and Elyot are not so much besotted with as addicted to each other. Amato and Waterston radiate a youthful vigor: This is a couple, we’re made to feel, with their best years ahead of them, giving us all the more reason to hope that ultimately, they’ll realize they’re meant to spend that time with each other.

Waterston’s Elyot is molded in the Coward style: There’s a wisp of the feminine in a voice pitched higher, and in a manner a bit more effete, than you expect from his manly demeanor. Concurrently, a flicker of masculine assertiveness is revealed in Amato’s Amanda, who gives as good as she gets. Their sparring begins as banter and escalates to boxing: Elyot gives Amanda a slap; Amanda breaks a record over Elyot’s head. (Remember, the play was written in 1930.)

The first act — in which they rediscover their fever for each other in the moments after they learn they’re otherwise spoken for — is more sharply satisfying than the second act, when in being in each other’s arms (in Amanda’s Paris flat) they rediscover that their union thrives on friction. What’s most fun here is the joy the two actors are able to convey, that on the domestic front, war can be a ball.

Best of all is Act 3, when Webb and Hurlbert are back, for a chain reaction of comic, head-on collisions. That most civilized of customs, the serving of morning coffee — here provided by Amanda’s snarly maid (Jane Ridley) — threatens to turn into a food fight. In Amanda’s being compelled to play hostess and serve Elyot, one gets the feeling, thanks to Amato’s withering gaze, that she’d rather be pouring hemlock.

Costume designer Candice Donnelly dresses the women smartly, with Amato in a killer bow-back gown and Hurlbert in sillier ruffles and floral prints. Waterston, meanwhile, has a deft turn at the piano, performing Coward’s “Someday I’ll Find You.” It’s a bittersweet melody, for a play that suggests there’s an awful lot of bile to flow out of a lifetime of wedded bliss.

Private Lives

By Noel Coward. Directed by Maria Aitken. Sets, Allen Moyer; costumes, Candice Donnelly; lighting, Philip S. Rosenberg; sound, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; choreography, Daniel Pelzig; fight choreography, Ted Hewlett; music director, Barbara Irvine. About 2 ½ hours. Tickets, $40-$110. Through July 13 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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