All’s fair in love and war. And for playwright Noel Coward, that extends to marriage and laughter.
Verbal warfare abounds in Coward’s classic, Private Lives, and the Washington Shakespeare Company’s production ensures that you are in the middle of the battlefield as barbs and arrows fly back and forth across the stage. Just remember: This is British warfare, so it’s all very dignified and refined.
Private Lives is a blend of love and hatred, passion and disgust, hope and misery. And that’s just the first act.
Directed by H. Lee Gable, Coward’s play is a glimpse into two marriages, both on the rocks from the start. After a four-month courtship, Elyot (Bruce Alan Rauscher) and Sybil (Megan Dominy) are honeymooning in France, though her prying and curiosity about his first marriage are threatening to turn the marital bed into a therapy couch. Across the lanai, Amanda (Cam Magee) and Victor (Jeremy Lister) are about to start their lives together, though his concerns mirror Sybil’s as he can’t stop thinking of Amanda’s ex-husband who was so cruel to her.
Amanda and Elyot are, of course, the estranged lovers. And once they spy each other, the dueling commences as their previous marriage overpowers their current ones. After much sparring, the two call a lovers’ truce and run off to Paris, leaving their spouses behind to follow in their wake. The remainder of the play is spent fighting, then kissing and making up. The speed with which the couples make love and then war, form alliances and break them, make the plot seem like a high school version of Survivor.
In actuality, Private Lives is much more a funnyman’s precursor to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Between the two couples fighting and flirting with each other and the intimate glimpses into flawed marriages, it is, at times, an uncomfortable voyeuristic look into a world that should remain private. But in Coward’s hands, that’s what makes it so funny.
The play rests solidly on the four primary actors, though an adjustment to the intimate setting would help throughout the night. Rauscher, in particular, bellows at decibels worthy of Radio City Music Hall. For 1409 Playbill CafÃ©’s small space, it’s like yelling to be heard in a room full of sleeping babies. Otherwise, his performance opposite Magee is filled with chemistry and his command of the play’s double entendres brings extra flair to Elyot. Dominy also hits the high notes during her wailing sessions, which, when combined with Rauscher’s volume, make for a couple cringe-filled scenes. When more subdued, she is able to convincingly convey Sybil’s brittle personality.
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As the other married couple, Magee and Lister are the more calm and refined pair. Magee’s performance is by far the most polished, giving just enough emphasis to Coward’s wittier lines to highlight them, but not make them too glaring. Despite looking like he’s dressed in his father’s suit, Lister does a fine job as the slightly lost Victor who is clearly not up to Amanda’s scheming. As the castoff lovers, Lister and Dominy find their rhythm in the final scene, making you wish they had more time during the play to build their tension together. Ultimately, the play belongs to Amanda and Elyot, and Magee and Rauscher truly crackle together with fiery passion.
Interspersed throughout the play are musical interludes provided by Barbara Papendorp, who appears suddenly behind a black scrim to the side, providing beautiful melodies between scenes. She’s a wonderful addition to the show and an often blissful reprieve from the cannon fire on stage. Papendorp also makes a brief cameo as a French maid, who manages to get laughs without one line in English.
Set director Richard Montgomery deserves special recognition for his detailed scenery. He fills every inch of the tiny stage with detailed precision, turning an outdoor resort patio complete with awnings and flora, to a stylish Parisian flat with butterfly-spotted orange curtains framing the Eiffel Tower in the distance.
Gable guides his cast through a traditional performance of Coward’s play, relying on the precision of the witty playwright’s words to amuse. Though occasionally worthy of an audible laugh, Private Lives is more likely to keep a smile on your face rather than create a stitch in your side. Combined with the production’s encouragement to fetch cocktails during the two intermissions, Private Lives makes for a perfectly enjoyable evening.