'Private Lives' gets scintillating revival

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  May 29, 2002 at 12:52 PM
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NEW YORK, May 29 (UPI) -- The latest revival of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" on Broadway is a completely satisfying production, effectively wiping out the memory of the last horrendous 1983 revival starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

The play has been imported from London to the Richard Rodgers Theater with its English cast intact. The stars are Lindsay Duncan as "Amanda," a role that won her the British Olivier Award for best actress, and Alan Rickman as "Elyot," and they are brilliant in their interpretations of Coward's witty take on the couple who cannot live together but cannot live apart.

From the minute the curtain goes up on the most beautiful set of this Broadway season, the audience knows it is in for a rare treat -- the perfect comedy with a perfect cast! Not only are Duncan and Rickman worth rushing to the theater to see, Emma Fielding and Adam Godley also are splendid in the roles of Amanda and Elyot's new spouses, "Sybil" and "Victor."

Coward and Gertrude Lawrence were the original stars of "Private Lives," both in London -- where it was rated an "immoral" play by the Lord Chamberlain's office -- and New York more than a half-century ago. Coward, as usual was playing himself -- the good-looking, debonair Englishman with stiff upper-lip delivery and silk dressing gown elegance. Actors have been trying to impersonate him and failing ever since.

Rickman comes the closest yet to creating a Coward-like personality while still giving Elyot a reality as a person rather than an impersonation of the famous playwright-actor-songwriter. Like the title of the haunting song Coward wrote for the play, "Someday I'll Find You," Rickman has found Elyot and it is a happy pairing.

"Private Lives" is the story of a divorced British couple who have found new mates, meet again by chance at a hotel on the French Riviera on their respective second honeymoons, and rekindle their old romance. They sneak away to Paris to resume their roles as eternally bickering lovers but are pursued by their jilted spouses with surprising consequences.

A stylish battle of wits is everything to a Coward play, and in "Private Lives" this theme is deliciously served. Although the subject under examination is love, it can never be allowed to deteriorate into a sex comedy, and this production never allows it to. The cast focuses on the trying, exhausting, insistent attractions of being in love that have little to do with love's erotic aspects.

This is not to say that Duncan, who first starred in New York 15 years ago in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," is not a sexy actress. Beautiful in an angular way, she exudes a hint of commonness that contrasts to Rickman's upper-class reserve and adds to the danger in their attraction to one another. She is quick to realize that the danger, which she enjoys, is lacking in her marriage to the younger, more unsophisticated Victor.

Rickman, who played opposite Duncan in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses and is "Snape" in the film version of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," displays a bored, flippant attitude toward love but masterfully conveys his realization that the younger, romantically inclined Sybil does not fill his need for the playful emotional confrontations that stir him out of his natural arrogance and lethargy. Amanda is the woman who can to that for him and is truly his better half.

Fielding is maddeningly sincere as Sybil, the quintessential ingénue, and very funny, too. She represents the bourgeois belief in morality and correct conduct under all circumstances that Coward despised, advising in lines given Elyot, "Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths ... Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light."

Godley, making his Broadway debut as Victor, is a real find for American audiences. He is utterly convincing as the befuddled amateur husband of a worldly older woman whose emotional needs are far beyond his poor powers to grasp or fulfill. Tall and gawky, he doesn't even have to speak to be amusing.

The cast is rounded out by Alex Belcourt, in private life Godley's wife, as a French maid who bolds this oddly assorted group of English in contempt and doesn't mind showing it.

Howard Davies, a much honored British director now associated with London's Almeida Theater, has directed the play with attention to drawing believable emotion from his actors rather than just polished, surface performances such as those of Taylor and Burton so commonly encountered in Coward plays.

Designer Tim Harley's balconied façade of a pearl-white Riviera hotel rises an amazing four stories and is breathtakingly beautiful. Its exquisite Art Deco detail reflects the patterns of lapping Mediterranean waters, a lovely effect achieved by lighting designer Peter Mumford. Hartley's set of Amanda's Paris apartment is also attractive in its faded luxuriousness. Also eye-pleasing are Jenny Beavan's flapper-era costumes.

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