TRUE TO FORM The Huntington's production of Noël Coward's great comedy is hilarious from start to finish.
It wouldn't be a stretch to call Noël Coward's 1930 Private Lives the funniest play of the 20th century. Repeated viewings don't diminish its dazzle: even if you know it well enough to anticipate the dialogue, when good actors read them, Coward's banter and epigrams tickle you all over again. At the Huntington Theatre Company's production directed by Maria Aitken (at the BU Theatre through June 24), my pleasure was enhanced by theatergoers behind me who didn't know the play and greeted the best lines with delighted surprise.
The play is a high comedy with a brilliant premise: Amanda (Bianca Amato) and Elyot (James Waterston), divorced for five years, find themselves on their second honeymoons in adjacent hotel rooms on the French Riviera. Upon seeing each other, they beg their respective spouses to take them away from this danger zone, but Victor (Jeremy Webb) and Sybil (Autumn Hurlbert) refuse. The inevitable occurs: Amanda and Elyot's passion for each other is reignited and they run off together. In act two, at Amanda's Paris flat, they re-embark on a romance that is no more stable now than it was the first time around.
A shared combination of resolute unconventionality, razor wit, self-indulgence, and impatience with the pettiness of ordinary life makes these two extraordinary creatures both kindred spirits and a match made in hell. Elyot and Amanda are by nature incapable of satisfaction: they know too much, about life and about each other. Some productions of the play have underscored the tragedy of ruined lives underneath the comedy, with variable success. Aitken barely hints at this level in the text, so her Private Lives lacks the depth I've seen in some others, but it's far worse to err in the other direction and risk dampening the comedy.
This version is hilarious from start to finish. Its weakness is a farcical broadness that shows up in some scenes, though at least Aitken and the two stars develop distinctive kinds of physical comedy — an approximation of the playful cutting up that Amanda and Elyot might engage in to entertain each other and guide each other over the tension that keeps surfacing, threatening to wreck their unwedded bliss. Hurlbert and Webb are both excellent when they don't push (more his flaw than hers), but their vocal performances are sturdier than their physical ones. The quarrel that brings the second act to a rousing finish isn't very convincing, and it's awkwardly staged.
Coward couldn't resist making Sybil and Victor into caricatures of the sort of people you can only imagine Elyot and Amanda landing on in a desperate rebound impulse. (Five years may have passed since their marriage collapsed, but, though they don't realize it until their fateful re-encounter, they've never stopped loving each other.) Sybil is clingy and hysterical, Victor pompous and overbearing; both are territorial and — lethally — conventional. Hurlbert and Webb do much more with their roles than actors usually manage to, especially Webb, who brings an unexpected tenderness and melancholy to his third-act scene with Amanda, after he and Sybil have hunted her and Elyot down in Paris.
, Paris, Theater, Marriage, More