by Hugh Hunter
Now running at Old Academy in East Falls, “Private Lives” (1930) by Noel Coward has enjoyed continuous revivals. It is vintage Coward, scornful, blasé and full of words like “Darling!” and “I say!” and whatnot.
In its gay disregard for moral convention, the play was a delicious scandal in its time. Coward was as much a public figure as a writer. Although a commoner by birth, he embodied the “toff” image of unengaged, aristocratic languor.
The plot is bare bones. Amanda and Elyot have been divorced for five years. They marry different spouses, but by chance run into each other at the same honeymoon hotel. Old passions spring to life; they abandon their new spouses and elope to Paris to renew their love-hate relationship.
It does not seem to be enough plot for a play. But the spectacle of verbally brawling and posturing couples together with Coward’s flair for language and comic timing provide the groundwork for a show.
Director Barbara Pease Weber pulls it off. Her pace is super-fast (and needs to be), but it could use a few extra moments of mannered lassitude. Because the real humor I see in Coward lies in this contradiction: his characters are simply too world-weary to have the energy to talk so much.
Weber’s cast is terrific. As Amanda, Shari Lewis is so ditsy and adorable you want to kiss her. Elyot (Paul DelSignore), her beleaguered mate, is constantly nonplussed. Sybil (Tiffany Brink) and Victor (Craig Copas) come up to scratch in the wonderful closing scene. And the entire cast does what needs to be done for this play to work.
“Private Lives” is sometimes called a farce, but it lacks the traditional elements of that art form: mistaken identity, masquerade, plot contrivances and so forth. It is really pure absurdity that rules here, where the individual’s world of quirky passion is the only reality.
The Old Academy production underscores the play’s satirical attitude in the delightful Paris apartment scenes. In this legendary land of “L’Amour,” French maid Louise (played by physically expressive Kimberly Shrack) storms about and sums up her view of the English love nest in a word: “Merde.”
“Private Lives” has hung around so long because it has a real line of metaphor. And in its comic hyperbole it makes large claims about us.
You are the judge of their value, as the play seems to suggest that life itself is a farce (no art form needed), and our much cooed over love ideal is always undercut by an abundance of pride and self-adulation. I say!
Old Academy is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane. “Private Lives” will run through Nov. 18. Reservations at 215-843-1109 or www.oldacademyplayers.org.
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