Monday, January 19, 2015

Theater Review: Private Lives -- Hartford Stage

Ken Barnett and Rachel Pickup. Photos: T. Charles Erickson

Too Bad These Couples’ Private Lives Are Played Out in Public
By Lauren Yarger
It’s supposed to be a gay (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) comedy about relationships and marriage, but Noel Coward’s Private Lives, getting a run at Hartford Stage, ends up making us feel like we wish these guests would go home and keep their weird relationships private.

The honeymoon is over for Amanda (Rachel Pickup) and Victor (Henry Clarke) Prynne -- and it just started. When new bride Amanda steps out onto the terrace of her French hotel room, she discovers her ex, Elyot Chase (Ken Barnett) next door. He is staying there with his new wife, Sibyl (Jenni Barber), but sparks soon are reigniting between the former lovers and the new marriages are doomed.

Soon, Amanda and Elyot are wondering (and so are we) how they ever thought the new relationships could ever satisfy them. Victor (Clarke is delightful and engaging) is a cheerful, ever-solicitous bloke who is a start contrast to the cruelty he feels Amanda suffered at the hands of her first husband; Sibyl is a whiny (and I do mean high-pitched) blonde obsessed with her husband’s first wife. It never is clear why their dynamic spouses would have been attracted in the first place.

Soon, Amanda and Elyot can contain their passion no more and they run off, leaving their new spouses behind. Hey eventually turn up in blissful domestic harmony at Amanda’s flat in Paris (the real star of this production – a fabulous deco set designed by Alexander Dodge). But bliss can be deceptive. . .

The couple clearly enjoys sex, but their personalities aren’t compatible. While they can’t live without each other, it’s clear they can’t live with each other either. They agree to take a break  and to refrain from interacting for a cool-off period any time they start one of their fights – which is often. The love-hate cycle continues until Victor and Sibyl finally figure out where they are and crash the love nest a few days later. Will Amanda and Elyot find happiness together or with their new spouses? With each other? Do we care? Not really.

The play is weak and bits that were supposed to be funny back in 1931 when it first appeared on Broadway aren’t any more. Verbal and physical abuse (so much of it that the services of Fight Director J. Allen Suddeth are needed) aren’t funny. Verbal and physical abuse with the husband saying that women should be struck regularly and the wife virtually saying “I love it. Give me more” are even less funny.  Hitting a spouse with objects, threatening to cut off a head with an ax? Just not funny.

I am a bit perplexed why Director Darko Tresnjak would assemble such a talented team of actors and creatives for this piece when there are so many other plays out there that are actually funny, not to mention less offensive. Many would lend themselves to actors strutting about on a beautiful set or dressing elegantly (costumes are designed here by Joshua Pearson, though the gown -- pictured above-- showing off Pickup’s very thin, toned physique proved a bit cumbersome for climbing over and on railings of the balconies.)

In addition to problems with the action, Coward doesn’t develop the characters. A superfluous maid named Louise (Carine Montbertrand) suddenly appears for no reason to mutter some comments in a heavy French accent, most of which can’t be understood – as is the case with much of Barber’s squeaky, whiny discourses too – (dialogue coaching is by Gillian Lane-Plescia).

Fortunately this “comedy” clocks in at 95 minutes without intermission.

Here's the great set::

Private Lives plays at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, through Feb. 8. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at  8 pm; Matinee and weekly schedules can vary. Wednesday matinee Jan. 21 at 2 pm.  Tickets $25-$95 (860) 527-5151; www.hartfordstage.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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