When Sir Noël Coward wrote his frothy comedy Private Lives in 1929, his intention was to create a show that he and Gertrude Lawrence could have a crashing good time performing. The story of a divorced couple who can’t stand each other and can’t stand to be separated is being staged by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, and it clearly supports an observation by New York Times critic Clive Barnes in 1969: “Private Lives is not a revival but a classic.” That’s precisely why Cincy Shakes is winding up its 20th-anniversary season with this witty bon mot of a comedy spun from an avalanche of “incessant trivial flippancy.”
In its day the show was controversial for its sexual innuendo. London censors strongly objected to Act II, in which Elyot and Amanda, having deserted their new spouses on their respective honeymoons in the south of France shack up in an apartment in Paris where they do as much fighting as making love. Nevertheless — or perhaps due to the controversy — it was a gigantic popular hit, with sold-out runs in London in 1929 and on Broadway shortly thereafter.
Cincy Shakes recruited Ensemble Theatre’s D. Lynn Meyers to stage the show, and she has a deft hand with four of the company’s most able performers — Jeremy Dubin and Kelly Mengelkoch as Coward’s sparring partners, Elyot and Amanda; Sara Clark as Sibyl, Elyot’s flighty second wife; and Brent Vimtrup as Victor, Amanda’s new husband, described by another character as a “rampaging gasbag.” They’re briefly interrupted in the play’s third act by Kim Long as Louise, a French maid (speaking nothing but French) who’s appalled at the Brits’ outrageous behavior, having trashed the apartment she serves.
Coward (who was overtly gay) and Lawrence had a stage partnership that inspired the spirited, feisty relationship of Elyot and Amanda. Dubin and Mengelkoch, a married couple in real life, have a natural chemistry — although it feels a tad more like play-acting between two people who have genuine affection for one another. Despite Dubin’s Elyot being impossibly rude at moments (he dismissively flings cigarettes and a lighter at Amanda, makes sexist objections regarding affairs she might have had after their divorce and takes several swings at her) and Mengelkoch’s Amanda flaring up monumentally at the slightest provocation (breaking a phonograph record over Elyot’s head, then being forced to hold her fire since they’ve devised a “safe word” to defuse arguments), you can see that they care about one another more than they despise the results of their close proximity.
The truth is that none of Private Lives’ characters resemble anyone from today’s world: They are the idle rich with no visible means of support. Perhaps Elyot has inherited wealth; Victor might be a businessman. But neither one pays any attention to earning a living. The women are simply the other sides of a marital equation. The couples have met at parties, fought at posh retreats, traveled (Elyot around the world, quite like the jet-setting Coward himself) with no sense of earning a living. They have the means to dally and play, and that they do.
Private Lives is a thin tissue of amusing and cleverly conceived plot elements, which Meyers’ production plays to the hilt. The couples have, by chance, ended up in Deauville, France, in side-by-side hotel rooms with adjoining balconies. We meet Elyot and Sibyl first; she’s a silly creature (Clark plays her as a kewpie doll with a ridiculous hairdo of spit curls) who peppers him with questions about his first marriage. They retire, and we find Victor, who is dull as dust but rather pushy, quizzing Amanda about how poorly Elyot treated her. When the inevitable encounter and reignited romance between the divorcees happens, we don’t need to know much more.
They retreat to Paris in Act II, lounging about in dressing gowns and pajamas, listening to the phonograph (especially a tune, “Someday I’ll Find You,” by Coward, also a composer) and vacillating between cuddling and cooing and wrestling and throwing things at one another. In Act III, the two couples sit down forward an awkward breakfast, and the tables turn as the jilted spouses take up the fray.
Another New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, writing about the original Broadway production in 1931, said Coward “has nothing to say, and manages to say it with competent agility for three acts.” Cincy Shakes packs those three acts into two-and-a-half hours of fun from start to finish. Even if it has nothing to say.
PRIVATE LIVES, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through June 29.