When attending a Noël Coward play, you expect wit, brainy banter and cutting insights on life and love. Private Lives, his 1930 hit comedy, offers these charming delights in spades, and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s wonderfully refined production elevates it all to the moon.
Literally — there’s a giant, glowing moon hovering above the stage.
And, like the rotating lunar phases, the show’s two star-crossed, middle-aged lovers, played to near perfection by Tracy Michelle Arnold and Robert Sella, wax and wane from delivering bristling insults in crisp, British accents, to long, passionate kisses, to hair-pulling and glass-shattering fights — and back again.
It’s a riotous show, tracking the volatile relationship of Elyot (Sella) and Amanda (Arnold). After five years of separation following a brutal divorce, they are abruptly reacquainted…while honeymooning with their new spouses. And, as such things go, they realize they desperately need each other. After all, you can’t deliver a zinger of a one-liner without a partner to help set it up.
As the unfortunate newlyweds who are left at the wayside on their honeymoons, Tim Campbell and Chaon Cross do a great deal with roles that are essentially plot devices — a true test for any actor. The costumes, hair design and set pieces are gorgeous – but I’m a sucker for anything Art Deco.
With three acts and two intermissions, the evening can feel a bit long-winded — particularly the middle act. And Sella, while otherwise wonderful, does come off a bit too light-footed and flippant to make me really believe he’s intensely in love with Amanda. But, overall, the show is a real treat, full of quotable lines and amusing perspectives on love and the evolution of relationships.
Director Gary Griffin’s production stresses intimacy. For those who’ve visited CST before, you’ll be surprised to discover that Griffin has transformed the Courtyard’s thrust stage into an in-the-round playhouse, making you feel a bit like a voyeur. From my seat above, it was as if I was peering down into another world, where sophistication, class and passion held court. And, in a brilliant piece of stagecraft, the stage rotates ever so slowly — not any faster than the minute hand on a giant clock. I didn’t notice until the set had nearly spun around 180 degrees.
Time is a curious beast, Griffen seems to imply with this subtle effect, and sometimes, after ranting, fighting and searching for something new to divert our attention, we end up right back where we started — which might be where we were intended to be all along.
“Private Lives” plays through March 7, 2010 at Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard Theater. For more information, visit the www.chicagoshakes.com.