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Shakespeare Theatre Company’s –  “Private Lives” Is a Rollicking Romp

Jordan Wright
June 9, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

 James Waterston as Elyot, Jeremy Webb as Victor, Bianca Amato as Amanda and  Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Noël Coward’s Private  Lives, directed by Maria Aitken. Photo by Scott Suchman

James Waterston as Elyot, Jeremy Webb as Victor, Bianca Amato as Amanda and
Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl Photo by Scott Suchman

Noël Coward’s deliciously wicked Private Lives has got us in a tizzy.  Is it scrumptiously witty or delightfully snarky?  No matter.  This heady romp of delicious vitriol is considered Coward’s best.  It’s a doorknob-high glimpse into the lives of the very rich and not-so-well divorced…and we do enjoy a bit of schadenfreude through the keyhole now and again.  Don’t we?

Sibyl and Elyot are honeymooners.  Ditto for Amanda and Victor.  Elyot and Amanda are exes whose marriage went up in funereal flames.  By coincidence the couples share an adjoining terrace in a chic hotel somewhere in the south of France.  When exes, Amanda and Elyot, espy one another across a boxwood planter, they go all monkey’s uncle.  The question is, can their romance reignite?  After some sparring and reminiscing, Amanda trills an old tune to Elyot.  As they both begin to soften their stances, she merrily quips, “It’s strange how potent cheap music is,” one of Coward’s most recognizable lines.

Bianca Amato as Amanda and James Waterston as Elyot . Photo by Scott Suchman

Bianca Amato as Amanda and James Waterston as Elyot in the Shakespeare Theatre
Photo by Scott Suchman

Bianca Amato as Amanda leaves no small emotion un-exploited in this hilarious verbal sword fight.  Her jaw-dropped double take upon discovering Elyot and her solo Rumba in red silk Chinese pajamas, are captivating.  James Waterston as her ex, Elyot, matches her parry for parry and thrust for thrust in this comedy of clever insults.  He even does a respectable turn on the piano.  Kudos to Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen for the 1930’s musical selections and period arrangements, as well as the terrific lighting.

Coward saw the patterns of “emotional baggage” before the term was coined, and exploits the concept here as each couple transfers their fears and prejudices on their new relationships.  He cannily intuited the futility of the snake that eats its own tail, ouroboros, while reveling in the high society that exalted it.  As Amanda succinctly philosophizes, “Very few people are completely normal in their private lives.”  Coward would know.  He lived both sides of it.

: James Waterston as Elyot and Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl. Photo by Scott Suchman.

: James Waterston as Elyot and Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The very petite Autumn Hurlbert plays Sibyl, rendering the character as crafty and manipulating a ditzy blonde as can be conjured up.  But Elyot is suspicious of his new wife’s machinations and threatens to cut off her head if they don’t leave the hotel and the impending spousal confrontations.  Ditto for Amanda v. Victor who duke it out before the marriage is consummated.

When the honeymooners square off in Act One, with Sybil and Victor refusing to leave, insults fly like raptors in sight of prey.  That it is all fueled by cocktails and passion, gaiety and madness, is what makes being a fly on the wall so doggone alluring.  And don’t we adore seeing the privileged get their comeuppance?  Even the French housekeeper, played smartly by Jane Ridley, gets her digs in.  “Idiotes!” she sneers at their absurdities.

Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl and Jane Ridley as Louise in the Shakespeare Theatre  Company production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, directed by Maria Aitken. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl and Jane Ridley as Louise. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Victor is played by the screamingly funny Jeremy Webb.  Webb perfectly captures the scrappy, moon-eyed, cuckolded husband, whom Elyot describes as “all fuss and fume”, to a tee.  He’s the perfect foil to the fabulously flippant Elyot, who tells him, “I think I’m cleverer than you are, but that’s not saying a lot!”

The high jinks and sophisticated repartee are backgrounded by the breathtaking sets of Allen Moyer, whose depiction of a grand hotel, and later Amanda’s bespoke Paris apartment, quite literally left the audience gasping (and applauding) in appreciation.

A rollickingly spiffy jaunt not to be missed.

Through July 13th at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20003. For tickets and information contact the Box Office at 202 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

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