A Play for Grown-Ups

Noël Coward returns us to a bygone era of wit, sophistication—and homicidal quarrels in Private Lives

Hard though it might be to fathom in the age of Knocked Up and Friends, there was once a time in American culture when sophisticated adulthood was considered an appealing state to attain (rather than an embarrassment, or the lamentable death of eternal adolescence). And it isn't that a work like Noël Coward's 1930 Private Lives is laden with significance or the sobriety of experience; if anything, it thumbs its nose at the concepts while embracing superficiality and wit as ends in themselves.

It's pretty thrilling as far as it goes. At the center of the play are Amanda (Veanne Cox) and Elyot (Stephen Pelinski), a couple who have divorced years before, after their ardor for one another proved to be matched only by the intensity of their quarrels. Amanda has married Victor (Kris L. Nelson), and Elyot has wed Sibyl (Tracey Maloney). Everyone has moved onward and upward, in other words, until the two couples inadvertently book suites next to each other on their honeymoons—with a shared balcony.

Coward thus cheerfully dispenses with logic, bending reality to bring the old lovers together. He also stacks the deck by making Elyot and Amanda's new spouses cruelly drippy. Maloney hunches her shoulders and screws her face into a mask of amiable ignorance as the conventional Sibyl, while Nelson sports a bad suit and lends a high-pitched, panicky note to a character whose emotional waters run about knee-deep.

Stephen Pelinski and Veanne Cox on a honeymoon—though not with each other
Michael Daniel
Stephen Pelinski and Veanne Cox on a honeymoon—though not with each other

If the script is unfair to Maloney and Nelson, who play their narrow-minded lightweights with painful precision, it is pretty much a playground for Pelinski and Cox. Pelinski clearly revels in the role of charismatic semi-cad, locking into Coward's rhythmic dialogue with musical facility (though he also presses hard on Elyot's recurrent verbal brutality, such as when the newly married charmer informs Sibyl, "I should like to cut off your head with a meat ax").

Cox slides through her performance with a mix of brittle fragility and arctic reserve. She gets her share of the ice-pick one-liners in this scenario and tends to deliver them by dropping the register of her voice and laying on the upper-class frost. She's brilliantly lit in Marcus Dilliard's design, her red curls and angular features a mask of desirable cool, too distant to touch. In one of her best lines of the night, she stands on the balcony and, utterly deadpan, declares, "I am in such a rage."

Elyot and Amanda duly run off with one another, and the second act takes place in Amanda's luxurious Paris flat; John Arnone's set design accents the opulence that underpins the frivolity, with the city glittering outside the exaggeratedly huge windows and a stylized Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur looming above. As in the rest of the play, all anyone really does is talk, and soon enough our inflamed lovers go after one another with their pre-divorce fervor, downing brandy, taking timeouts in a futile bid to dial back the increasingly homicidal ambience, and finally trashing the place in an epic fight.

Director Peter Rothstein is no stranger to musical theater, and Coward obliges with his composition "Someday I'll Find You" haunting the early going, then a duet between Pelinski and Cox that makes a case for their characters' potent chemistry. But this is a show about words as music, and the killer lines are spoken, not sung. Coward has Elyot make a case for eternal levity as its own fount of profundity, to the point that, when Victor arrives with Sibyl and demands to know whether Elyot loves Amanda, Pelinski offhandedly replies, "Not very much this morning."

So there was a time when handling the realities of adulthood with offhand aplomb was nothing less than sexy—not that anyone pulled it off entirely in real life, mind you, but it was at least held up as something worth striving for. By the end, Elyot and Amanda appear willing to give it a go, despite their unquenchable enmity (and not inconsiderable love) for one another—which, come to think of it, is about as grown-up as it gets.

 
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