There are only a handful of plays that stay viable throughout generations. After a few decades, even the most venerable classics wear out their welcome or lack the timeliness that made them great in a bygone era. But Noel Coward’s 1930s romantic comedy “Private Lives,” which opened Saturday at the Kitchen Theatre, still packs a heavy comedic punch even to the most modern of audiences.
Coward’s comedy of manners examines what happens when longtime lovers reunite under peculiar circumstances, headed up by a powerhouse cast.
Divorced lovers Elyot Chase (Brian Dykstra) and Amanda Prynne (Carol Halstead) find themselves honeymooning in the same hotel with their new respective spouses. After realizing the passion between them still exists, Elyot and Amanda run away from their newlyweds to be together in Paris.
The premise sounds like the actions of young, naïve lovers, but that’s exactly where the comedy lies. These characters are gripping onto the last bits of frivolous youth they once shared — quarreling, kissing and crying. Through their extended excursion in a Paris flat, the two discover that tumultuous fighting could be what keeps their love exciting and fresh. For them, it’s just a matter of keeping it to a happy minimum.
Director Margarett Perry, a frequent director at the Kitchen Theatre, tackles Coward’s tongue-in-cheek circumstances and flippant dialogue with fluidity and ease. But in a small sense, she sacrifices bits of the timeless humor, like the absurdity of a divorced couple ditching each of their lovers, to infuse the show with contemporary mannerisms.
When Elyot and Amanda settle on their plan to leave their spouses for Paris, they hop up and down like two giddy best friends. It’s a hilarious moment, but a little too much like 2010 for a 1930 setting. The spurts of modernity detract from the illusion that the play takes place 80 years in the past.
Aside from the occasional slip out of British accents or inkling of modern-day physicality that detract from the depiction of the time period, The Kitchen Theatre’s rendition of Coward’s classic comedy of errors is a witty, entertaining three acts.
Dykstra and Halstead practically beam with “chemical what d’you call ’ems,” the term Amanda gives to the sensual spark in every passionate relationship. There’s not a dull moment during their time together on stage, and they share a vibrant dynamic — Dykstra as the sardonic Elyot and Halstead as the sophisticated, untamed Amanda. It’s almost like watching Clark Gable go toe-to-toe with Tallulah Bankhead, the saucy flapper-era actress, with plenty of champagne but no cocaine.
Emily Renee Bennett (Sibyl Chase) and Tobias Burns (Victor Prynne) also deliver energetic performances as Elyot and Amanda’s former spouses. Bennett’s Sybil is as bubbly as champagne and as demure as they come. Burns steals scene after scene with his comedic portrayal of Victor, with slicked-back hair bouncing out of control as his character tries to make sense of the chaos around him.
A short but brilliant performance from Camilla Shade as Louise, a sickly French maid, is like icing on the cake — random and sidesplittingly entertaining. She traipses on stage at the most inopportune times, spewing French and making situations both oh-so-awkward and hysterical.
Back-dropped by a beautifully minimal set designed by Cornell University professor Kent Goetz and serene lighting by Cornell lecturer E.D. Intemann, “Private Lives” transports the audience to a time filled with wistful orchestras by the beach and bobbed coiffures. Lisa Boquist’s colorful costumes capture the time period with elegant suits and flowing dresses, though this play is too timeless to be summed up as simply a period piece.
It isn’t before long that the façade drops, and the audience sees the undying truth that spans decades. Love knows no bounds, opposites don’t always attract and just a little champagne can go a long way.