Can we talk?
The advance reports have not been misleading. The Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor revival of "Private Lives," which opened a two-week run last night in the Kennedy Center Opera House, has all the grace and charm of a pileup on a Los Angeles freeway.
It reduces Noel Coward's martini-dry comedy to a Punch and Judy show.
It makes a mockery of his sophistication and wit.
It is informed by no noticeable theatrical principles, although it blithely extends the craven show-business tradition of P.T. Barnum. (Enough has been made of the ticket prices. The souvenir program, if you wish to preserve memories of the event, will cost you $5.)
That said, it may be added that the revival also exerts a certain morbid fascination. There they are, after all, the Abelard and Heloise of our day, battle-scarred and calorie-ravaged, perhaps, but putting themselves up for display once again, spatting, kissing, trading insults, cozying up to one another and coughing up lines that, under the circumstance, ring with clangorous irony.
Coward's premise is, of course, entirely--and intentionally--too close for comfort. Elyot (Burton) and Amanda (Taylor), divorced for five years, have remarried and are on their respective honeymoons at the same Deauville hotel. As it happens, they even have adjoining balconies. Although they once behaved "like two vile acids bubbling around in a nasty matrimonial bottle," they discover in no time flat that they really cannot live without one another, much less with their new mates.
So they ditch their newly acquired lesser halves, scramble off to Paris and find themselves engaging in the same volatile, excessive behavior all over again. Creatures of perfect whim, spoiled rotten, they nonetheless have style on their side. And in Coward's eye, style is all. Elyot and Amanda are Art Deco royalty, gliding through a stuffy world with their magnificent sense of triviality undimmed.
In this production, however, Amanda--bright, blithe Amanda--is a middle-aged kewpie doll with a fishmonger's temper. And Elyot--dapper, quick Elyot--could just as easily be the mortician in "Winesburg, Ohio." To see Taylor flop down impetuously on a divan, the pants of her pink lounging outfit riding up her calves, is not an edifying sight. To see her hoist herself back up is even less so. Watching Burton, hunch-shouldered and stiff as if with arthritis, hobble jauntily across the stage is, quite frankly, painful. Why, one can only ask, are they subjecting themselves to this masquerade?
Even worse is what they do to Coward's quicksilver repartee. Burton treats it for the most part as if it were not quite worthy of him. The words appear to be sullying his mouth and the effortless superiority of Elyot registers in his performance as sour disdain. Taylor, to the contrary, pounces on her punchlines like a beggar on a purse, screws up her face shamelessly, and distends her vowels so that simple adjectives like "delightful" or "ugly" sound like howls of pain. Between them, there is no rapport, no unspoken subtext, no glimmer of ambivalent emotion. What you see is what you get.
Never for a moment can you forget (or are you encouraged to) that it is Liz and Dick going through the motions. Coward's script may or may not approximate their two fabled marriages, but this production certainly pretends it does. Like a voyeuristic fan magazine, "Private Lives" invites us to go behind the manicured hedges and the thick baronial door and share the glamorous intimacy of one of Hollywood's best-known couples. See them lounging around. See him coddle her lovingly. See them sipping brandy, making goo-goo eyes at one another, having breakfast. My heavens, see them at one another's throats! See her smash a vase over his head! Knee him in the groin! Flail him with a bouquet of flowers!
"There isn't a part of you I don't know," he purrs, gazing into her violet eyes, and a shiver runs through the hall.
"Marriage scares me, really," she says, and a whoop of laughter rocks the chandeliers.
"Ill-mannered, bad-tempered hussy," he huffs, and little pockets of indignation erupt out front.
"Preserve me from nice women," she says snippily to Sibyl, the wife who momentarily supplanted her in Elyot's affections. "Your own reputation ought to do that," retorts Sibyl, and, I swear, an "oooooohhhh!" not unlike the roar of the ocean rises from the audience, reacting as one.
This is not theater. This is some curious sociological phenomenon, engendered by Hollywood, the tabloids, our insatiable curiosity for celebrities and the reckless living patterns of two superstars whose every hiccup has been grist for nearly three generations of columnists. One hundred years from now, people will have trouble understanding what the fuss was about. But that fuss is the raison d'etre of this production, its very soul, in fact.
For the record, Kathryn Walker and John Cullum play the forsaken mates. Helena Carroll, growling French, plays the maid. The soundstage sets are by David Mitchell. Theoni V. Aldredge, using every flattering optical illusion known to costume designers, has provided the wardrobe. And the directorial credit is shared by Lou Antonio and Milton Katselas.
Whatever their efforts, they are eclipsed by the mere fact of Liz and Dick, Dick and Liz. Together again. In the flesh. Big as life. Welcoming your stares. Like Tom Thumb. PRIVATE LIVES. By Noel Coward. Production supervised by Lou Antonio; directed by Milton Katselas. With Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, John Cullum, Kathryn Walker. Sets, David Mitchell; costumes, Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting, Tharon Musser. At the Opera House through Sept. 4.