Noel Cowards plays continue to amuse because of their glamorous sophistication and witty naughtiness. Private Lives, a knowing look at volatile romantic relationships, keeps actors and directors coming back to this classic comedy. PlayMakers Repertory Companys highly physical, madcap staging is undeniably funny and a credit to the actors stamina, although the slapstick and caricature shortchange the plays subtler charms and underlying humanity.
Cowards 1930 piece begins with the sudden meeting of formerly married Elyot and Amanda, each now on separate honeymoons on the Riviera. Adjoining balconies throw them together, rekindling their former passion. They swear they are happily married and glad to be free of their previous brawling, but soon realize they still love each other. They sneak off to a Paris flat, where initial bliss quickly reverts to the same old jealousies and insults, exacerbated by the arrival of their spouses, Sibyl and Victor.
Director Sean Daniels takes his cue from 1930s Hollywood screwball comedies, with the actors constantly on the move while delivering lines in boisterous, giddy outbursts. Confrontations are vigorously tactile, leading to much overturned furniture and broken objects.
Daniels also mirrors Busby Berkeleys 1930s elaborate film choreography with an ensemble of five singer-dancers setting the mood and changing the scenery. Pianist Mark Lewis is at a baby grand onstage, playing for them as well as underscoring various scenes. It all takes place on Michael Raifords spiffy, three-tiered Art Deco set, with the main playing area surrounded by café tables for premium ticket buyers. Curiously, the large set is quite cramped, especially in the Paris flat, forcing actors to gingerly pick their way around furniture and brawl-induced debris.
As Amanda, Julie Fishell gamely gambols over the set while expertly lobbing Cowards zingers, channeling Katharine Hepburn in her flighty laughter and arch gestures. Kristen Mengelkoch is pert as Sibyl, Kewpie-doll cute in manner and voice. Both are asked to give outsized characterizations that get laughs but coarsen Cowards elegant style. Both men fare better, with Jeffrey Blair Cornells Elyot confidently charming and wickedly waggish, and Tom Coiners Victor hilariously old-school and slow on the draw. Tania Chelnovs snooty French maid Louise is a droll cameo.
The overactive staging de-emphasizes the dialogues subtleties but is crowd-pleasing and entertaining in its own right a tribute to the resilience of Cowards clever concoction.