The passions of Private Lives

Battle of the exes at Portland Players
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  April 3, 2014


REAL LIFE LOVE Charlie and Rebecca Cole,
married in real life, portray rancor on stage.

Ah, our first loves — how passionate, how rash, how infuriating. Good thing we move on into mature, responsible relationships. But oh, if only these later romances had quite the chemistry of the first. Noël Coward puts his characteristically cynical spin on what happens when two exes happen upon each other anew —  during their honeymoons with new spouses —  in a very winning community theater production of the farce Private Lives. Claudia Hughes directs a vibrant production as part of the 83rd season of The Portland Players.

On tastefully appointed terraces in the south of France, Elyot (Charlie Cole) and Amanda (Rebecca Cole) are all maturity and measure with their new spouses: Elyot with his young, insecure Sibyl (Katie Lynn Mcdowell) and Amanda with her milquetoast Victor (Jaimie Schwartz). Blasé and worldly, they humor curiosity about their disastrous former marriage, and how it compares to the new. “I love you much more calmly,” Rebecca indulges Victor, with only a whiff of boredom.

In Hughes’s well cast production, the jaded exes pose entertaining contrasts to their new partners. McDowell’s needy innocence, girlish good looks, and self-righteously clear smile are the essence of vanilla against Amanda’s deadpan, matter-of-fact flippancy and her unconventional beauty, with her hair done in close golden waves and her withering Bette Davis eyes. Where McDowell’s Sibyl spills her heart’s truth with high-pitched candor, Rebecca Cole’s Amanda delivers both repartee and lies with flashing eyes and a shrug. As for the men, Schwartz’s taut build and uptight carriage speak the world of difference between him and Cole’s Elyot, with his caddish floppiness of hair, suit, and limbs and the snarky set of his mouth. Is it any wonder that Amanda and Elyot make out right there on the terrace?

Rebecca Cole and Charlie Cole are married in real life, and their chemistry is at once ardent and comfortable, with verisimilitude in a lot of nuances that acted couples often overdramatize. The tension of their first reunion is blessedly free of physical histrionics — the most visible sign of their affliction is troubled breathing. Later, alone in Amanda’s Paris flat (a beautiful, breezily bohemian set), they show a satisfying understanding of how spousal hellfire can spiral from petty moments of boredom, and they do an excellent job navigating each arc of the couple’s incessant, extreme reversals of affection. This is especially fun to watch in their self-imposed two-minute silences to restore the peace, which showcase great physical work, in lovely little compositions of crossings and turnings toward and away each other, which finally soften into relenting laughter. And the couple’s moments of happiness are supremely sensual and familiar, entwined on a loveseat in an intimate silken tangle. How could Sybil and Victor stand a chance?

Production designers, too, have put a lot of energy into drawing the contrast between the couples. Not only do the two locales differ greatly on the color wheel — the soft greys and greens of the hotel terrace against the clementine-red of Amanda’s flat — but the lighting shifts drastically, from cool blue gels to an almost surreally orange warmth. Costumes are stunning throughout; Amanda, particularly, looks drop-dead gorgeous in her glittering cream and black dressing gown and robe; and Elyot’s silk PJs are a louche Brit’s dream. The one production area that needs a tweak is sound (the amplified orchestral refrains often overpower the actors), but overwhelmingly this play and its performers are lovely to look at.

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