English playwright Noël Coward is not known for his succinctness. To call him verbose would be an understatement. Many of his words are quite funny, but actors in a Coward play must juggle an overabundance with the right timing to earn the audience’s mirth.
Without good acting, and impeccable timing, a Coward play can quickly turn into a slog-fest to be endured.
Fortunately, the cast of Cat Theatre’s Private Lives was quick on their feet. With skillful rhythm and pacing they coaxed the humor out of the script to amuse the audience.
Private Lives is my second live go-around with the playwright and restored my faith in giving second chances. Under Melissa Rayford’s direction, this comedy of manners stayed on point and relevant.
Elyot Chase (Aaron Orensky) and his young wife Sybil (newcomer Anastasia Brunk) are on honeymoon in Northwestern France. In an adjacent suite, Elyot’s ex-wife Amanda (Donna Marie Miller) and her new husband Victor Prynne (Eddie Webster) are enjoying their own honeymoon.
When Elyot and Amanda inevitably spot each other on the adjacent balconies, their tumultuous love is rekindled with near disastrous results for all involved.
Orensky portrays the cunning and arrogant Elyot with great relish, and Brunk’s whiny and meddlesome Sybil provides just the right counter-balance. Miller’s Mandy is sexy and fiery and the model of a free-thinking modern woman. Webster’s Victor is charmingly naïve and bumbling.
Theresa Mantiply as the French maid, Louise, provides sarcastic levity, almost as though she is Coward himself commenting on the mess at hand.
Coward’s plays have sometimes been called “closet gay plays” but Private Lives seems to be more about changing gender roles and the modernization of relationships. With themes of divorce and remarriage, and equality between the sexes, Private Lives was considered risqué in the 1930′s and attempts were made to censor portions of the play.
While somewhat old-fashioned, a modern audience can appreciate just how daring Private Lives was.
The set and costumes paled in comparison to the acting, but since Coward’s script is so focally-centered on word play, it didn’t detract from the performance as much as it might have. And perhaps the understated feel helped to elevate the importance of the verbal banter.
Noël Coward is not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m glad I gave him another go.
Private Lives continues through November 7. For tickets visit, visit the CAT Theatre website.