PRIVATE LIVES, by Noel Coward, produced by the Fine Line Actor's Theatre, directed by Susan Marya Baronoff, technical director Eddie Archuleta, costumes by Timothy O'Neil and Michele Tuttle, set by Joe Munroe, lights by Gregory Bonner.
With Ann Ball, Paul McCarren, Patrick Carey, Jane Le Grand and Stephanie Soutouris. Music played and arranged by Mary Nelle Osborne.
At the GALA Theater through Sunday, then at the YWCA through Nov. 21.
Noel Coward often wrote about trivial people who were so entertaining that they were irresistible, a talent illustrated by a credible production of "Private Lives" now playing at the GALA.
The Fine Line Actor's Theatre has taken on the delicate style of Coward as a change of pace from heavier fare, and mastered most of the elements -- a certain elegant insouciance, sharp timing and the very slight indication the playwright gives us that these people are aware of their own triviality. Of course, this is elegance on a small budget, New York champagne as opposed to Dom Perignon, silver plate rather than silver. But the actors do their best to convince us it's all 14-karat gold.
Amanda and Elyot were married for three years and have been divorced for five; they encounter each other at a French resort while on their honeymoons with new mates, and rekindle old sparks. It is clear almost immediately that the new spouses are unsuitable -- Elyot's new wife Sybil thinks a suntan is unfeminine, and Amanda's husband Victor is equally appalled at his new wife's intention to get toasted. Amanda and Elyot are the sort who can hurl vile insults (Elyot to Sybil: "I'd like to cut your head off with a meat ax." Amanda to Victor: "pompous a--!") which they easily forget, while their stuffier mates are shocked and hurt at such talk.
Amanda and Elyot run off, displaying their customary disregard for others and reluctance to take responsibility for their irresponsibility. The two head for her Paris apartment, where during Act II they reveal to us that when they aren't fighting they don't have much to say.
The battles of wits, however, are like badminton matches, with pithy imprecations shuttling gracefully over the net and then batted back again. Some of the lines are classics: "Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs," Elyot says. He has other unforgettables such as, "Don't quibble, Sybil," and "Come and kiss me before your body rots . . ."
Paul McCarren is an extremely appealing Elyot, and Ann Ball is nearly perfect as Sybil. Patrick Carey seems rather stiff, but manages an adequate Victor.
In the enviable role of Amanda, Jane Le Grand is both delightful and irritating. She has a frizzy hairdo that is more reminiscent of Bette Midler than Gertrude Lawrence or Lynn Fontanne, and her habit of constantly patting her hair only furthers the Midler image. Her elegance fades as the evening goes on, like perfume wearing off. But her delivery is quick and properly acerbic, and her Amanda convincingly and charmingly frivolous.
All the performers are cramped by the unusual playing area -- the audience is seated on two sides, giving the effect of watching the play from the wings of a proscenium stage. (The atmosphere was not helped much at Thursday's opening by the presence of a local rum bum who shouted responses to some of the lines -- in particular a cheer at the mention of a gin and tonic -- before he was politely returned to the sidewalk.)
Director Susan Marya Baronoff says "the style is Lunt and Fontanne; the issues are George and Martha." It is true that Amanda and Elyot relish going at each other as though marriage were a blood sport; fortunately Baronoff has given more weight to style than substance, for with Coward, the style very often is the substanse.