Snooty Charm

The production values are atrocious, but the performances are delightful in LTW's 'Private Lives'

Although the production values for the latest Tucson presentation of Noël Coward's classic romantic farce Private Lives might be less than fabulous, there is magic on the stage at Live Theatre Workshop. It's in Coward's delicious language and, to a lesser degree, the enthusiastic performances of what amounts to an all-star LTW cast.

Let's get the griping out of the way first.

The shabby sets and stage dressing utterly fail to re-create the jazz-age French-set glamour of the show, but we'll give LTW the benefit of the doubt and assume the company is attempting some sort of minimalism. The lighting varies from being blindingly bright to clumsily obscuring some entrances and exits in darkness, leaving the audience (and maybe the actors) disoriented. The women's costumes look nice enough, but the men's tuxedos look bunchy and uncomfortable, as if they were rented from a tux shop (which they were) and are not owned by the high-society dandies who wear them.

However, the five performers--ranging from reliable to excellent--prove they must have worked, reworked and polished feverishly the classic Coward aphorisms and upper-crust shenanigans, hitting most of the right comedic notes. For this director, Roberta Streicher must take some of the credit.

Stuffy Elyot (Richard Ivey) is honeymooning in Deauville, France, with his second wife, the ditzy Sybil (Jodi Rankin). Much to his surprise, Elyot's first wife, the bossy Amanda (Kristi Loera), is on honeymoon as well, with her clueless new hubby, Victor (Eric Anson). In the same hotel. In adjacent rooms, with adjoining balconies.

That's just the beginning of the comic parallelism. Suffice to say, Elyot and Amanda rekindle something--a little passion mixed with a lot of anger--and run off together, while poor Sybil and Victor remain in the dark. Until, that is, they track down the reunited couple at Amanda's flat in Paris.

Sparks fly, as well as insults, not to mention fists, elbows and knees. Yep, Amanda and Elyot's passion often takes the form of violence. That might have been funny in the 1930s, when this play was written, but today, the sight of a man hitting a woman draws gasps rather than laughs.

Private Lives, to be fair, is intent on replicating an entirely different culture than the one with which many of us in Tucson are familiar. This is the sort of starchy British world in which characters already dressed to the nines say "we must dress" before going out to dinner, a world in which they say "bathe" when they mean swim, and in which married people (actually, two sets of married people) don't ask each other what they can expect until after the wedding.

Coward's play inhabits this world so that it can expose the hypocrisy within in it, his nearly misanthropic subtext being that the human tendency is to torment the ones we love. Elyot and Amanda, both compatibly volatile, say some hurtful things to their respective new spouses--but they save the really nasty stuff for each other. They are so prone to fighting that they must have a "safe" word to call for timeouts.

Despite all that, the tone of the script is not one of moral outrage, but one of droll humor. Which the LTW players willingly provide.

Ivey is spot-on as the absentmindedly superior Elyot, comfortably delivering Coward's famous blasé lines ("Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs") with delicious ennui. He moves through the scenes with an air of authority that suits his character, and he shows off considerable piano-playing skills.

Anson plays Victor with a gregarious befuddlement and a false confidence that actually reminded me of a certain commander in chief. The interpretation works, and the actor is more engaging here than in Cactus Flower a couple of months ago.

Even as a beauty salon owner in last year's Steel Magnolias, Loera (who also happens to be LTW's executive director) usually has projected a regal grace, and she doesn't fail to do so here. She is radiant as the commanding, manipulative Amanda, who convinces us that being bossed around by her should be an honor. She is utterly charming even when sighing, "Honeymoon is such an overrated amusement."

Rankin truly proves herself a deft comedienne as Sybil, who is suitably mystified by Elyot's superciliously and whose vaguely cockney dialect hints that, among these snooty types, maybe she is a rung or two above her class. Rankin has many delightful comic turns, recalling the ability of Carol Burnett to communicate pathos and charm at the same time.

Megan Patno makes the most of a third-act entrance as a fussy French maid who, at the same time, appears to be annoyed and nonplussed by the atrocious behavior of these outwardly elegant Brits.

Even as its tone varies from urbane screwball to Three Stooges madcap, this Private Lives makes for an entertaining evening.

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