‘Private Lives’ has situations that predate modern sitcoms

private-lives.jpgBy Vicki Paris Goodman, Arts & Entertainment Editor

At once far-fetched and bursting with realism, Noel Coward’s Private Lives takes its audience to a place that feels all too familiar.
I mean, how likely is it that a divorced couple will re-marry other people at the same instant and wind up in adjacent suites at the very same hotel while honeymooning? Unless you are Frasier and Lilith, and the context is a sitcom, I would say the likelihood is not very.
But if you can bear with Coward in his flight of situational fancy, the reward is a treatment of on-again-off-again relationships that is so right on it will make your hair stand on end.
Elyot and Amanda (Brenan Baird and Katharine McEwan), a dynamic and headstrong couple who can’t live with each other and can’t manage very well without, either, have attempted to move on after five divorced years apart. Separate scenes on adjoining verandas with their new spouses, Sibyl and Victor (Lauren Dunaga and Kelly London), reek subtly but palpably of conflict and denial.
As the divorced pair attempt to convince themselves they are devoted to their new, more stable and steady partners, we sense something’s awry. One look at each other upon their unexpected reunion obviously tells Elyot and Amanda pretty much the same thing. It’s that unspoken but facially expressed, “Oh no, what have we done?”
Once Elyot and Amanda do the unthinkable and make off together with nary an explanation to their respective newly weddeds, their alone time in Amanda’s Paris flat reveals oscillations of bliss and loathing that are both funny and tragic.
In excellent portrayals, Baird and McEwan establish remarkable chemistry from the start, making their mutual affection mildly heartfelt and their physically and verbally abusive rows almost heartbreaking. If the two were a little less self-involved and superficial, we might feel true empathy. But we also sense that Private Lives is intended as something of a parody, so the lack of truly likable characters can be pretty much forgiven.
Dunaga gives Sybil an interesting combination of insecurity and willfulness, while London’s rather straight-laced Victor is arguably the most decent character of the bunch.
So even though Private Lives is a bit of a cheek, the action is so well crafted that I still identified with Elyot and Amanda’s love-hate connection, and also with the unfortunate position in which Sybil and Victor find themselves.
This cast delivers all of the play’s nuances with expert timing and expression.
Darlene Hunter Chaffee directs the well-paced production which holds our interest start to finish.
Scenic and lighting designer Jesse GrothOlson has created an elegant veranda set for the first act and a believable Paris apartment for the second.
This Long Beach Playhouse production brings us a classic Noel Coward work in entertaining high style. Come and see how it ends.
Private Lives continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre through September 29. General admission tickets are $22; $20 for seniors. Student tickets are $12 with valid student ID and are available for Friday and Saturday performances. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees on September 2, 9 and 23 at 2 p.m.
Call (562) 494-1014 for reservations and information. Tickets are also available online at www.lbph.com.

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