Posted by: strugglesome | January 10, 2012

Public Displays Of Affection: The Lantern Theater’s Private Lives

Opposites may indeed attract, but so do people who are unerringly similar. It’s just logical, really, if you hate all the same things and like all the same things you are bound to bump into other people who share your commonalities. It’s hard to meet a fellow vegan at Wingbowl. It’s not hard to meet a fellow vegan at a place called “Soyland”. I’m not saying these things can’t be done, I’m just saying it’s a challenge.

So it’s no wonder that Noel Coward’s best known couple, Amanda and Elliot of Private Lives (produced by the Lantern Theater Company)  have quite a bit in common. The pair (played by Genevieve Perrier and Ben Dibble, respectively) are both witty, wry, hot-tempered and ethically lax, more inclined to debate about cravats and caviar then concern themselves with petty morals. After all, it’s just so bourgeoisie, don’t you think? So when this divorced but never really separated couple find itself alone together on a balcony in France (like you do, #firstworldproblems), it’s only natural that after a little banter (foreplay) and a drink or two they find themselves slipping away together to Amanda’s love nest. It’s just a shame they leave behind  Elliot’s shrewish kewpie-doll new wife, Sibyl (K.O. DelMarcelle) and Amanda’s sweet and stodgy patronistic new husband, Victor (Leonard Hass). But oh, well, what’s a little spouse switching between friends? After all, this is France.

But is the spark between Amanda and Elliot sustainable, or is it the equivalent of a take out dinner in styrofoam containers, delicious and rather sinful, but unhealthy and wasteful? Well, the answer is yes, really, or at least that seems to be what Kathryn MacMillan’s production is telling us. Amanda (flawless and fun in the hands of the consummately excellent Perrier) and Elliot (whose comedic timing is perfect but whose debonair charm could use some work) are like a much more restrained Sid and Nancy, or a much more violent Fred and Ginger, take your pick.  Because no sooner do the lovebirds reunite then they start fighting, first with nitpicking and bickering, then with physical altercations and hurled insults, and no number of “safety words” or cigarettes seems to do much good. Can they make it work? Should they even try? And that’s pretty much what happens in Private Lives. Oh, and there is a French maid (Jessica Bedford), who enters in the third act to cast a Gallic eye of disapproval over these silly Anglicans. We don’t really need her, but then, what would the upper classes be without the help?

Like most modern Comedies of manners, it’s low on plot and high on dazzlingly sharp one-liners and well crafted social commentary. And it’s given a lovely production by the Lantern, glowing in Thom Weaver’s warm lighting design and neat but sumptuous with Meghan Jones’ demurely tasteful set design and Mark Mariani’s stunning costumes. From Amanda’s knockout emerald day dress (complete with matching hat! Why doesn’t anyone wear hats anymore?) to Victor’s oh-so-tweedy traveling suit, from Sibyl’s caplet to Louise the maid’s shabby chic ensemble, each outfit flatters and fits the piece perfectly. With the smokey sounds of Christopher Colucci’s sound and Coward’s original compositions haunting the room, one almost feels transported back to a time when music was sweeter, people dressed for dinner, and smoking was good for you. Ah, those were the days.

Plus there are, of course, several fascinating and frustratingly intriguing characters. Amanda is very much a modern woman, she drinks, she smokes, she enjoys a suntan and a healthy amount of extra-marital intercourse. Whats more, she knows herself, and she knows what she wants. Of course, what she wants changes from day-to-day, but she knows that too. And she’s more than a match for Elliot, whose slick surface barely covers his vulnerable interior. The reality is that it is Elliot, not Amanda, who is the true romantic here, traveling the world in solitude after their first marriage dissolved, pining for her from across the world. But Coward is just chock full of these subtle role reversals and comments on gender politics in modern society. As Amanda and Elliot battle and spar, then kiss and make up, the undercurrents of their relationship mirror those of polite society of the time. As they bicker:

Elliot: It doesn’t suit woman to be promiscuous

Amanda: It doesn’t suit you for women to be promiscuous.

One has only to look at the difference between Amanda and DelMarcelle’s deliciously irritating Sibyl (while it’s fairly frequently that I want to reach out and slap someone, this is the first time I’ve had to actively force myself not to do so, which is a good thing, because that’s that character’s entire reason for existing) and we see what fascinates Elliot about Amanda. She is her own person, and therefore she is forever beyond his reach. It’s bound to cause them both no end of problems, but if the entirely unsurprising ending of this play is any indication, these crazy kids would rather be miserable with each other than mildly happy but mostly bored with someone else. The opposite of love isn’t hate, really, it’s indifference. And the last thing Elliot and Amanda are is indifferent.

Even Noel Coward, who has given us some of the best comedic female characters of modern theater, can’t be as even-handed as one might wish. After all, Haas’ excellently played Victor is stuffy and British in the extreme (which is great for hunting parties and stiff upper lips, but less so for amour) is at least a kind and gentle person, someone we pity for having gotten caught up in the wake of Amanda and Elliot’s train wreck romance. Sibyl is afforded no such tolerance, she’s a shrew and a smug idiot and we, like Victor, are desperate to shake her. But how much more interesting, more complex and complicated would it have been to have Amanda and Elliot pick second partners who were both better for them, in terms of the day-to-day, the nuts and bolts of existence. Why couldn’t they both marry people who were legitimately strong options, but just not people they could actually in some way love? It seems clear that in her own way, Amanda loves Victor. Elliot couldn’t possibly love Sibyl. And not just because her name is Sibyl. Though I’m sure that’s at least some consideration.

But one has to wonder, are we even supposed to think about silly things like equality and socially enforced gender roles, or are we supposed to laugh at the jokes, smile at the love story, and walk away drunk on banter? Can we help doing one and not the other? Even in Coward’s comedic apex, these issues remain a clear part of the story, and to not consider them is to ignore the basis of this work, that is, society. Comedy points a finger at society no less so than tragedy, it simply choose to do so in a more subtle way. After all, what would you prefer, reading a textbook or checking out Feminist Ryan Gosling?

Private Lives has finished its wildly successful champagne bubble of a run, but maybe if we ask nicely they will do it again, after all, that’s an option now. At the very least, you will be sure to catch this piece playing somewhere sometime soon. It’s a classic for a reason.

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