by Hugh Hunter
Revivals of “Private Lives: (1931) spring up continually, as though the play were a rooted mushroom. The current production at Stagecrafters rejoices in Noel Coward’s banter.
Here is the set-up. A divorced, upper-class English couple, Amanda and Elyot, go their separate ways. After five years they take on new mates. But while both are on their honeymoons, the old lovers run smack into each other. Awkward, darling.
Plot complication? Character development? Forget about it. And while the French locale changes, the basic situation stays exactly the same. This is all rather mundane. But despite such little investment in dramatic storytelling, the show keeps you feeling merry on the strength of the production and the odd appeal of Coward’s wit.
Much success is owed to actress Pierlisa Chiodo-Steo, a resident of Chestnut Hill. Without hamming it up, Chiodo-Steo is full of expressive bodily shifts, and her Amanda becomes charmingly “unreliable.” Jeff Ragan is spot-on as the befuddled ex-mate. Amanda and Elyot fight constantly. Together, they serve as each other’s straight man. The result is a sort of inspired vaudeville.
It all proves to be too much for the new spouses, Sibyl (Mare Mikalic) and Victor (Mark Grayson), while French maid Louise (Sonya Aiko Hearn) tosses in another sort of comic accent into the stew. It is delicious mayhem.
Rhonda Goldstein scores big in her first spin as director; the show is nicely choreographed, and the pace escalates. The set design of Scott Killinger makes you feel you are in France. (Be sure to read the program notes about Killinger’s career as architect and urban designer.)
Playwright Noel Coward grew up an impoverished commoner, but in “Private Lives” he emulates the droll languor of the idle, smart set. It became his signature stance.
There is something both novel and nasty in his humor. Even his best lines lack the stand-alone, aphoristic wit of an Oscar Wilde. The comedy rather lies in the patter itself, the sardonic delight his characters take in talking past each other in High English style.
Amanda, Elyot and company utterly refuse to give each other person any power to affect them. At times, their chronic estrangement begins to feel formulaic. But it is wickedly funny. Amanda and Elyot knowingly believe in nothing. Their inability to feel any genuine distress over any situation is where the play’s humor lies. They seem to do the Lindy Hop on their graves.
You could call this a pose. You could say the same of Theater of the Absurd. “Private Lives” makes no claim to profundity, but at least it is entertaining.
Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “Private Lives” will run through Feb. 20. Reservations at 215-247-8881.
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