Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, January 2004

“We’re talking about a style that became a way of being for a lot of people. English cultural history between the world wars is, in some extremely large part, Noël Coward. He put himself into the narrative the English tell themselves about their struggles, their suffering, their triumphs.”

– theatre critic John Lahr on Noel Coward

Until I found this quote, I was hard pressed to put my finger on what was bothering me about the basically excellent production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives at the Ghent Playhouse. Everyone in the building, on stage and off, was just too American. (“Poor things. Not their faults, really, they were probably born that way,” I imagine Coward saying.) Despite our semi-common language, there is a culture gap and a comedy gap, and now, 75 years since Coward set pen to paper, there is a generation gap between us.

But does a 2004 production need to sound and look and play exactly the same way it did three-quarters of a century ago? Would we, today, be entertained by a musty old relic of a time and place so far away?

Director Kate Gilliver and her fine cast and crew do everything they can to bridge these divides, and they provide plenty of entertainment in the process. The sets are gorgeous and cleverly functional. The cast is attractive, competent, and hard-working. Gulliver clearly enjoyed directing them, and Vivian Wachsberger has created some smashing costumes. The night I attended the house was packed and everyone was having a great time.

Amanda (Johnna Murray) and Elyot (Paul Murphy) have been divorced for five years after a tempestuous three year marriage. They have each remarried – he to the very young and silly Sibyl (Morgen Bowers), and she to the very repressed and pompous Victor (Nick Jones). By a terrible twist of fate, the two couples book adjoining honeymoon suites at a seaside hotel in France. One brief meeting on the balcony and Amanda and Elyot elope together to Paris, stranding their unwitting new spouses. The rest of the play chronicles their second attempt at living together and how Sibyl and Victor cope with it.

“I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives.”

– Noel Coward, Private Lives 1929

The wickedly witty banter of Amanda and Elyot, Sibyl and Victor, are all just an excuse for Coward (1899-1973) to explore this idea.

Murphy is handsome as Elyot, he even elicited a wolf-whistle from the audience when he appeared on the balcony in his dinner jacket. He is not Noel Coward, but Coward would be the first to point out that nobody else possibly could be. Murphy seemed the most un-British of the cast, but he is fun to watch nonetheless.

And really Murphy’s job is to make Murray look good, a task which couldn’t be easier. Murray is a versatile performer blessed with neither great beauty nor a caricature of a face, enabling her to play a range of ages and types with conviction. If I hadn’t seen her excellent and chilling performance as Maureen in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” last year, or her freaky turn as Sarah Jane Moore in “Assassins” the year before that, I would have said that she was born to play Coward. I think I will amend that comment to simply say that Murray was born to act, and that it is always a pleasure to see her do so.

I enjoyed Jones as Victor, particularly in his later scenes. He has a very aristocratic nose and a fine profile which adds credence to his character’s pompous bluster. Bowers is the weakest link in the cast. Despite a vividly blonde and violently crimped wig, I never bought her as the little twenty-something trophy wife of an aging roué.

Paul Leyden has put together a lovely score of background piano music for Private Lives. Although it doesn’t say so in the program, I am quite sure that either Leyden or someone else performs it live offstage, which gives the nostalgic feel of being in an old movie house in the days when the local piano teacher played along with the silent films. I don’t know why we don’t score plays the way we score films more often. In this case it is very effective.

There is also a little singing in the show. Coward wrote many musicals, and I admire the way his songs just flow from the human thought and emotion in the play, rather than stopping the action for a big song-and-dance number. Murray and Murphy perform the two duets in Private Lives in the same off-the-cuff manner in which Coward wrote them. I enjoyed them very much.

I highly recommend standing near the stage at intermission to watch the set change. Joe Iuviene and Bill Camp have designed a set nearly as clever as Coward dialogue and it is a treat to see how it is transformed from seaside hotel balconies to a chic Paris apartment. I enjoyed the art deco details on the doors and sconces in the apartment set that helped establish the period of the play. Tom Detwiler has dressed the sets nicely.

If only Wachberger’s costumes had been able to consistently follow suit. The men’s suits were obviously modern, and the women’s day dresses were late forties, not late twenties. But Murray has a perfect flapper’s figure, and Wachsberger gave her three knock-out outfits that suited both her and the period. It is her Amanda – in that pink satin dressing gown, that red satin evening gown, and those to-die-for silk pajamas – that you remember. You conveniently forget the silly and not particularly flattering navy polka-dotted number in which she made her final exit.

Private Lives runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. January 23-25 and January 30-February 1 at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Young children will be bored by all the bickering grown-ups, but teens will get a kick out of the proceedings. Tickets are $15, $12 for Playhouse members. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004

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