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APT’s ‘Private Lives’ Excels

Aug. 11, 2015
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Photo by Carissa Dixon

Verbal barbs and witty bon mots filled the night air during American Players Theatre’s production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, which opened Saturday at the amphitheater Up-the-Hill on the company’s Spring Green campus. APT always does Coward’s acerbic comedies well, and Private Lives is no exception.

Written over a four-day period in 1929 while the author was recovering from influenza in Shanghai, the narrative concerns Elyot Chase (Jim DeVita) and Amanda Prynne (Deborah Staples), previously married to each other, but now divorced. Both arrive in Deauville, France, for their respective honeymoons with new spouses, Sybil Chase (Kelsey Brennan) and Victor Prynne (John Taylor Phillips), respectively. True to Coward’s form, the two couples discover they have adjacent hotel rooms, causing comedic sparks to fly from the very start.

Coward originally wrote the work for himself and friend Gertrude Lawrence. He also wrote one of his most popular songs, “Someday I’ll Find You,” for the play as a key device to rekindle the romance between Elyot and Amanda.

By and large APT’s Private Lives works, and at times it works very well. James Bohnen’s uptempo direction gives his cast a lively cadence to follow. Some of Coward’s more nuanced lines seem to be lost on audience members caught up in the energy, however, which robs the production of some of the subtlety. But, as DeVita’s Elyot says more than once, “It can’t be helped.”

DeVita and, especially, Staples play Elyot and Amanda with a clearly manic edge, bringing significant energy to this comedy of manners. Elyot’s brutality hides under DeVita’s thin veneer of sophistication, while Amanda’s joie de vivre manifests as near hysteria. These are two people who find it very difficult to be together, and impossible to be apart.

Brennan and Taylor Phillips bring substance and, as much as possible, nobility to Sybil and Victor, roles Coward originally described as “extra puppets, lightly wooden ninepins, only to be repeatedly knocked down and stood up again.” Together, they become the comedic device that helps reignite the romance between Elyot and Amanda.

Nods go to scenic designer Andrew Boyce, whose sophisticated and inventive set adds much to the production, and Elyse Edelman, forced to speak her tiny role as Amanda’s Parisienne maid, Louise, entirely in French. C’est la vie.

The “jagged sophistication,” which Staples’ Amanda uses to describe herself also best describes the structure and execution of Private Lives. One could quibble with the source material, which becomes a bit overlong and self-indulgent in Act II. But, given the comedic goals at stake, it can’t be helped.

Through Oct. 2 at American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green. For tickets go to americanplayers.org.

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