Sunday, April 12, 2009

Theater Cricket: Private Lives by Noel Coward

Last week, R.A. and I went to see Private Lives, written by Noel Coward and playing now through May 3 at the City Lit Theatre in Bryn Mawr, on the Far North Side. The Theatre's address is 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, which happens to also be the exact same address for the Edgewater Presbyterian Church. I was quite taken aback at this, and, when we first arrived, I was convinced that we were in the wrong spot. But we weren't; the City Lit Theatre happens to be inside the Edgewater Presbyterian Church, which also happens to be the home of the Rogers Park Montessori school. Function follows form, I guess.

City Lit is an acting company that has been in Chicago for 30 years now, and, according to their website, at one point was "the only theatre in the nation devoted to stage adaptations of literary material.." Their blurb goes on to say that they have "presented a wide array of voices, from classic writers such as Henry James, Edith Wharton, Oliver Goldsmith, Mark Twain, Colette, and P.G. Wodehouse to such contemporary writers as Alice Walker, W.P. Kinsella, Lynda Barry, Raymond Carver, Edward Albee and Ruth Pwarer Jhabvala." Given this list, City Lit's production of Private Lives definitely falls under the former category: It was a performance filled with witty repartee, champagne flutes, 1920's art decor sets, fake cigarettes with fake cigarette smoke, and lots of British accents. It all struck me as weirdly anachronistic.

Noel Coward wrote Private Lives in 1930. He had been traveling in China when he came down with the flu, and he wrote the play over the course of four days, while he recovered. The plot follows former spouses Elyot (played by Don Bender) and Amanda (Cameron Feagin), two divorcees out on their respective second honeymoons, Elyot with the young and flighty Sybil (Maggie Kettering), and Amanda with the strong-chinned and flat-footed Victor (George Seegebrecht). Lo and behold, both couples are honeymooning at the same hotel in fashionable Deauville, Normandy. They're even sleeping in adjacent rooms. Quelle coincididence!

Hilarity ensues. The three acts of the play are driven both by dialogue and action as the comedians run about the stage, hiding behind shrubs, bolting in and out of rooms and, at one point, engaging in a surprisingly violent domestic fight. The stage belongs for the most part to Cameron Feagin, who is able to convey both Amanda's cynicism and anger as well as her sense of humor and love of life. I got the feeling that Amanda is Coward's favorite character in the play; he wrote the part for his close friend Gertrude Lawrence, and in a story of rivalry and one-upmanship, it is Amanda who inevitably keeps coming up on top. Coward himself originally played the part of Elyot. Ideally, Elyot ought to be Amanda's equal and rival, witty and urbane but also more than a bit disappointed with life, and just a touch sadistic. Unfortunately, Don Bender plays him more as a lech and a drunkard, filled with too much impotent rage and not enough quiet spite. And as for the younger belle and beau, Sybil and Victor, I never really got a feel for either of them. The characters are designed to be overpowered by their older, wiser, craftier counterparts, but these two seemed a little too willing to be used and manipulated.

The set and the costumes were designed to give the audience some kind of sense of the roaring twenties, all art-deco patterns and pastel colors. The costumes are all flowing dresses, white tuxedos, and elegant bathrobes. And, as the two couples traipse across France, staying in luxurious Parisian apartments and swapping partners and then swapping them again, I began to think to myself, "What in hell do these people do for a living?" There is a fifth character in the play, the French maid Louise, played by Shawna Tucker, who is constantly plagued by hay-fever and the middling French of her employers. But apart from Louise, no one else seems to work for a living.

A typical American concern, I know. But as the sounds of semi-trucks and ambulances pierced the unfortunately thin theatre/church/school walls, I wondered why City Lit decided that now, what with unemployment being at a 25-year high and all, was the time for this play that is strikingly unconcerned with questions of labor and capital, where wealth and luxury are both taken as givens. Even more puzzling is why director Terry McCabe did nothing to try to point out these discrepancies between the fantastic world that Amanda and Elyot inhabit and our own. It felt a little bit like being told to eat cake, or maybe to have a Bombay Sapphire martini.

Of course, I may be missing the essential point altogether. Private Lives was written in 1930, at the dawn of the Great Depression. It was immediately popular with both the critics and the audiences in New York. It has continued to be popular, winning Tonys in 1970 and 2002.* It has made successful run after successful run on Broadway, and maybe the reason for that is its essentially escapist attitude towards life and its hardships. It seems as if, in hard times, Americans seek out images and representations of beauty, wealth, and luxury. Or, at least, they just don't want to be reminded of their own private lives.**

* The 2002 performance starred Lindsay Duncan as Amanda and Alan Rickman as Elyot. I would pay a lot to see that.

** I preferred the January production of The Marriage of Figaro at the Greenhouse Theatre in Lincoln Park, a play which has kind of the same screwball elements as Private Lives but also contextualizes them within the themes of money, sex, and power.

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