Noel Coward's "Private Lives" Shines at Huntington (Five Stars)
by Johnny Plankton
Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Hunting Ave. presents NoŽl Coward's Private Lives, (May 25th thru June 24th). Directed by Maria Aitken and featuring Bianca Amato as Amanda and James Waterston as Elyot: Choreography by Daniel Pelzig; Scenic Design by Allen Moyer; costume design by Candice Donnelly; lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg.
The Huntington Theatre production of Noel Coward's comic masterpiece Private Lives is a rare treat for those who like their dialogue witty, their settings glamorous, and their plot devices absurd. The lightning fast-paced comedy is jammed with acerbic barbs and ridiculous behavior from a pair of bad seeds from the apparently idle (and uber-British) rich class seeking to correct past marital mistakes and find a true and lasting love between the World Wars in Europe.
"I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives," says protagonist/antagonist Amanda to her new husband in the play's opening act, and we get to see just what she means over the next two-plus hours.
The play opens on the terrace of an elegant hotel on the French Riviera with two separate, side by side suites open to the audience, which are occupied by two divorced people - both about to begin their honeymoons with a new spouse - who separated five years earlier. Elyot (James Waterston) and his new bride Sibyl (Autumn Hurlbert) begin the action by exchanging inane niceties on the balcony before the adorably annoying Sibyl turns the conversation to what went wrong in his first marriage - not exactly a recipe for harmony on your wedding night. They exit and make way for the strait-laced and stodgy Victor (Jeremy Webb) and Amanda (the brilliantly talented Bianca Amato) Elyot's beautiful and fiery ex-wife. Victor repeats the same mistake as Sibyl, probing to find out how Elyot could leave a jewel such as Amanda, thus setting the stage for the fireworks to come, as it is clear that both divorced parties are seeking a life with a kinder, gentler partner. So instead of the clinically disturbed Amanda, Elyot has substituted "steady and sweet" Sibyl. And in the place of the unpredictable and downright mean Elyot, Amanda has inserted Victor, whom she claims to love "much more calmly," than her former spouse. And as with many of our best laid plans, the universe laughs - along with the audience.
Because what unfolds next is the warped and uproarious behavior of two people who - due to their wealth and sophistication - are nothing like most of us, but act out on the worst impulses of any of us at our most reprehensible. Elyot and Amanda are, in fact, quite horrible people who truly deserve each other; placing their style and snobbish sophistication in front of nearly anything - including basic human decency - to outdo the other's childish Mensa brat behavior. But like most great comedy, you don't have to want to emulate these characters to find them insanely funny. Their deep affection for each other's quirkiness is beautifully portrayed - but then quickly intercut with scenes of violent hatred toward each other, which includes physical exchanges that some people may find a little disturbing. There's nothing like extraordinarily clever exchanges between wildly bipolar characters in the pre-medication age to light up an audience - and Waterston and Amato deliver with unrestrained zeal.
Although the cast is uniformly solid, Amato is particularly dazzling, whether gouging her cohorts with stinging wit or absorbing their equally vicious retorts with stunned and wounded expressions. And she is a joy to watch move, especially when she's slinking sexily around in silk pajamas while dancing to phonograph records or Elyot's piano playing. Her appeal is extraordinary and explains why many men would take a chance even if she were a suspected serial killer. Waterston is also terrific, particularly when delivering one of his rants at whoever has the misfortune of being in his path when he comes off his hinges, and he is a great physical comic as well.
Hurlbert and Webb are solid too, especially when they get to assert themselves to their haughty spouses for their indefensible and childish behavior. Boston favorite Paula Plum also generates laughs as the French-speaking maid. As is the case with many great plays and movies, the plot may be outlandish, but the brilliant dialogue and terrific performances make this classic comedy shine.
""SIZZLING CHEMISTRY! Bianca Amato and James Waterston are just about perfect.""
- The Boston Globe
Divorcťs Amanda and Elyot meet again by accident on their second honeymoons with brand-new spouses in tow. Fireworks fly as they discover how quickly romance ó and rivalry ó can be rekindled in NoŽl Coward's stylish, savvy comedy about the people we can't live with . . . or without.
Approximate running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including two 10-minute intermissions.
Please Note: Non-herbal, tobacco-free cigarettes will be smoked during the performance.