In this effervescent comedy, once-married Elyot and Amanda—now honeymooning with new spouses at the same hotel—reignite the old spark and impulsively elope … only to wonder a few days later whether love, jealousy or anger is the hotter passion.
By Mark Segal
East Hampton Star
In “Private Lives,” as in many of his plays, Noel Coward mines complex, volatile relationships among the shallow and narcissistic for humor, pathos, and, swirling amid the surface effervescence, trenchant observations about love. The Hampton Theatre Company will open a two-and-a-half-week run of the 1930 comedy, written in three days while Coward was convalescing from influenza during travels abroad, next Thursday at the Quogue Community Hall.
“Private Lives” opens at a hotel in Deauville, France, where Elyot and Sybil are honeymooning. Unbeknownst to Elyot, Amanda, his former wife, is in the adjoining suite with her new husband, Victor. When they discover the bizarre coincidence, both Elyot and Amanda ask their new spouses to leave the hotel with them, but both refuse and storm off to dine alone, leaving Elyot and Amanda to discover they are still drawn to each other.
Act II finds Elyot and Amanda at her flat in Paris, where their passion is soon overtaken by increasingly violent arguing that escalates to physical violence. “There is very real love there,” said Andrew Botsford, who plays Elyot, “but there is so much self-love that the question is whether they can possibly really connect.”
Mr. Botsford is also one of four members of the company’s artistic committee, which selects each season’s plays with an eye toward a balance of comedy and drama and new plays and classic works. “When we get to the second and third act,” he said, “certain ideas about couples and how men and women should interact with each other resurface. There’s real care in the writing, it’s really well constructed and really well thought out, in ways that if you look at it as a champagne cocktail of a comedy, you miss that.”
The play’s first production in 1930 in London starred Coward in the role of Elyot, with his longtime co-star, Gertrude Lawrence, as Amanda and a young Laurence Olivier as Victor. While the now-familiar theatrical honors did not exist then, revivals of the play have earned Tony Awards, Drama Desk Awards, and Olivier Awards.
A number of Coward’s plays included marital infidelity and sexual shenanigans, and during rehearsals of “Private Lives” the Lord Chamberlain labeled the second act love scene too risque. Coward pleaded his case by acting out the scene himself and managed to avoid censorship.
In today’s #MeToo climate, another aspect of the play — the physical violence between Elyot and Amanda — seems, at best, anachronistic. “We were wincing when we did the read through, because Elyot hits Amanda and she hits him back,” said Mr. Botsford.
“In the third act, Amanda says, ‘A man should never strike a woman,’ and Elyot says, ‘Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.’ How can you say this in 2019? But in the context of the play, it’s perfectly acceptable.”
In a review of a 2015 revival, Anita Gates of The New York Times cited as a sign of Coward’s theatrical genius that he could “write a story heavy on spousal abuse that still plays, without offense, 85 years later.” To Amanda’s credit, she responds to the “gong” comment with a knee to Elyot’s groin and a broken record over his head.
The cast of the Hampton Theatre Company production features, in addition to Mr. Botsford, Rosemary Cline as Amanda, Matthew Conlon as Victor, Rebecca Edana as Sybil, and Diana Marbury as the maid in Amanda’s Paris flat. Mr. Botsford and Ms. Kline have been acting together in different contexts ever since the company began 34 years ago. “This is cast perfectly for us,” he said. “Our experience acting together adds layers of stuff that are perfect for the play.”
George Loizides directs. Set design is by Sean Marbury, lighting design by Sebastian Paczynski, sound by Seamus Naughton, and costumes by Teresa Lebrun.
Performances will take place Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8, and Sundays at 2:30, with an additional matinee set for June 8. Tickets are $30, $25 for senior citizens (except Saturday evenings), $20 for those under 35, and $10 for students.
By Michelle Trauring
Director George Loizides calls them his “A-Team” — their names borderline hallmarks, instantly recognizable to the Quogue theater crowd and beyond.
They are not just a cast of seasoned actors. They are fixtures of the Hampton Theatre Company’s 35-year run, and an immediate draw for Loizides, he said.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, 50 years, and I always enjoy working with Hampton Theatre Company, whether I’m acting or directing,” Loizides said. “You know when you play a sport like tennis with somebody who’s a little bit better than you, and your game gets a little bit better? Well, that’s how I feel when I work with HTC. My game’s better because I’m playing with people whose games are a tad better than mine, maybe.”
He is referring to Andrew Botsford, Rosemary Cline, Matthew Conlon, Rebecca Edana and Diana Marbury, the stars of “Private Lives,” opening Thursday, May 23, as the Hampton Theatre Company’s fourth and final play of the 2018-2019 season.
“It’s probably the seminal comedy for bad manners. It’s hilarious,” Loizides said. “The humor is there in the language, the characterizations, the physicality, the action, but I think there’s also a pretty good message, too, about the complexities of trying to be in love and being allowed to be yourself and be in love. I think that’s one of the reasons it still is popular as it is.”
For two weeks in 1930, a flu-ridden Coward spent much of his convalescence sketching out “Private Lives” in his head, ultimately writing the script in four days from Shanghai, China.
“He wrote this at a, really, not so great time in history,” Loizides said. “America was at economic collapse, which affected the rest of the world. Fascism was brewing in Europe and Germany. And he writes this piece that, in a way, says, ‘Grab your fun while you can because you don’t know what’s coming,’ and it’s hilarious. The characters are so despicable, but you like them. It’s like the ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ of 1930.”
Set in a hotel in Deauville, France, the comedy revolves around two couples — Elyot and Sybil Chase, and Amanda and Victor Prynne — who are honeymooning in adjacent rooms. All seems innocent enough, except Elyot and Amanda have been married once before, to each other, and inevitably bump into one another on their neighboring balconies.
“From there, it’s like you’re lighting a fuse,” Loizides said. “You’re waiting for this fuse to burn down and all of a sudden there’s going to be this big change and this big explosion. That first act really grabs the audience, and then the second and third acts are the payoff. Nobody writes like Noël Coward.”
And for Loizides — who directed “Private Lives” twice before in 1997 and 2006 — no one has acted this play quite like the Hampton Theatre Company cast. With Botsford and Edana as the Chases, Cline and Conlon as the Prynnes, and Marbury as Louise, the maid in Amanda’s Paris flat, they bring a certain level of maturity and understanding to the play, he said, landing “a cut above most other theater groups.”
“They just seem to get it a little bit more,” he said. “You’re working with people in the know, and we’re all friends, so you don’t have to break through. You don’t have to cut a hole in the wall to get inside with what these people think and what they may do. You have an in on that already. It makes it more fun, because you’re comfortable, and sometimes it’s challenging.”
Rehearsals began in mid-April, marking a reunion of sorts for Botsford, Cline, Conlon, and Edana, who all closed last season together with the final show, “Don’t Dress for Dinner.” Their relationships run deep, several of the actors having directed one another over the decades — Loizides included, he said.
“Good work is gonna happen with this group. I always know it’s gonna happen,” he said. “It might not be an easy path to get there, but I know it’s gonna happen. And, to me, if people leave the theater and they had a great time and they laughed and they feel good, I think that’s a pretty damn good thing to have happen, and I think we need more of that, especially these days. If that’s what they bring away, I’m a happy guy.”
Hampton Theatre Company will open “Private Lives,” its fourth and final play of the 2018-2019 season, on Thursday, May 23, at 7 p.m. at Quogue Community Hall, located at 125 Jessup Avenue in Quogue. Additional performances will be held on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., through June 9, with another matinee performance on Saturday, June 8.
Tickets are $30, $25 for seniors, $20 for under age 35 and $10 for students. For more information, call (866) 811-4111