by Noel Coward
Atlantic Theatre Festival
Wolfville, August 2000
Are we in the midst of a Noel Coward revival? It seems unlikely on the face of it -- after all, his plays are dated, brittle comedies-of-manners from the roaring twenties, suffused with a kind and level of verbal wit which has been out of fashion -- not to mention beyond comprehension -- for some decades now. Their characters have an insouciant carelessness about money and practicalities which seems moored three-quarters of a century ago. In a world of Jerry Springer and Pamela and Tommy Lee, and frantic scrambling for business advantages, the verbal sparring and ambivalent, tensely charged relationships of a Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, or a Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy or Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart (or even a Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis) seem effete and archaic.
And yet the current Atlantic Theatre Festival production of Private Lives suggests -- as did the Shaw Festival's Easy Virtue -- that smart production values, spot-on timing, wonderful physical acting, and an actor or two who can take what's really very clever a level up and make it seem not only smart but also intelligent, can give Coward's work a currency and bite that only a few years ago I'd have thought impossible.
On the face of it, Private Lives doesn't seem ripe for revival. The basic premise might make a pretty amusing one-scener in a cabaret: two characters, divorced for six years or so, happen accidentally to be booked into adjoining honeymoon suites on their respective honeymoons with their new mates. They meet, are struck blind with the same passion that had inspired the first disastrous marriage, and run off to Paris together, leaving the two dumbfounded partners facing each other. That's the end of the first act, and an audience unfamiliar with the script might well be excused for figuring that's it and going out for a drink.
But, as it happens, there's more (one can't help feeling that Coward added the second act after realizing that, although he'd come to the end of his script, he hadn't come to the end of the evening). We pick up in Act II in Paris where the lovers are on the third day of their delirious romantic escape. The second careless freshness is about to wear off, as we discover when the relationship evolves into physical violence and permanent, mutual renunciation and loathing. In the midst of the altercation, who should arrive but the abandoned mates. Eventually the mates (a) each decide to forgive the errant partner, or at least not to institute divorce action, and (b) discover, or reveal, that they loathe each other. As they start to engage in actual combat, the first two begin to discover that their mutual passion may not have entirely expired even yet.
What's it about? Well, at bottom probably not much more than A Midsummer Night's Dream: what fools these mortals be. Or perhaps it hath no Bottom. But on the top, the froth and tingle of the language, the prickly complexity of the relationship between the principals, and the Wildean silliness of the premise, add up to an evening that's a good deal more than just entertainment.
Especially in this production, where the actors' sheer perfection of comic timing, control of physical comedy, and the director's brilliant blocking and pacing, conspire with Patrick Clarke's superlative set and costumes to present a lovely, almost seamless entertainment. Exactly the sort of thing Coward would have had in mind, I think -- except that he wouldn't have expected so many of his superficial witticisms to have survived as much as a decade, let alone nearly fourscore years.
The performances of Patrick Galligan as Elyot and Stephanie Baptist as Amanda are among the most consummately well-timed and physically disciplined performances in comedy of manners I've ever seen. Galligan gets laughs from lines that fairly creak with age or convention, hinting with his delivery that Elyot sees just how strained the line is and is offering it as an example of wit ("It would take a far more concentrated woman than Amanda to be unfaithful every five minutes"). His gestures have just the r ight snap of histrionic irony; his striding about the room to plant himself for a line adds just the right whiff of self-conscious pomposity to the role. Baptist flings her body about the stage with what looks like abandon, but isn't, and her timing is the equal of Galligan. Watching them play off each other made me wonder if Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence could have been much better. Even their physical conflict is brilliantly choreographed and perfectly timed -- if, like Easy Virtue, you might c all this play a World Wide Wrestling style of comedy of manners, even the violence is mannered.
The scene between the two of them at the opening of the second act, beginning with their rapturous mutual adoration and ending with his "you're a mean, evil-minded little vampire -- I hope to God I never set eyes on you again as long as I live" and her "Beast; brute; swine; cad; beast; beast; brute, devil --" while they roll about on the floor smashing furniture, is as gripping and convincing a bit of romantic comedy devolving into a moment of truth as I've seen. Their attraction is real, and so is their repulsion, and we believe both.
The secondary roles of the abandoned spouses are played well, too, though not exactly in the same league. David Jansen's Victor seemed a bit more stiff and awkward even than the role required (he looked a little like a young Richard Nixon), and Lisa Waines didn't find a way to solve the problem awarded to her by Coward, that her character really only has one note -- "how can you?"; "how dare you?!"; "how could you?! -- and one which doesn't wear all that well.
There are still some problems in the production. I couldn't figure out what the actual layout of the Paris apartment was -- for instance, did Elyot and Amanda really have separate bedrooms to which they could retire? Why did a couch which seemed to me simply to have been put inconveniently in the way need to be moved before Amanda could get past it? Why did another have to be moved at all (except that the script required it)? But these difficulties can easily be ignored in the course of a show where so m uch flies with such grace.