No one can watch Noel Coward’s 1931 comedy classic Private Lives without absorbing at least some of the topsy-turvy sexual energy of the characters. This play about the on again/off again/on-and-off again relationship between two people who are either perfect for each other or tragically wrong for each other (you decide) is at once hilarious, ludicrous, and a bit cringeworthy, as his best plays tend to be. Raven Theatre’s production, directed by Ian Frank, presses all of the buttons and then adds a few more in a perfect opening to its 40th season.
Rudy Galvan and Emily Tate star as Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne, a formerly married couple who find themselves ensconced in adjoining suites in a French hotel as each begins a new marriage. With that premise, you expect a screwball comedy, and Coward does not let you down, as the two characters open with individual scenes on their respective parts of the hotel’s terrace before discovering their unexpected and unwelcome neighbors.
We first meet Elyot and his just-minted bride Sybil (Alexis Green) as they take in the sunset over the Mediterranean. Their conversation is peppered with inanities that reveal Sybil’s not very well-hidden jealousy over her husband’s life-defining first marriage, which ended in a rancorous divorce after he and his wife Amanda realized that their sexual fireworks could not compensate for their equally combustible relationship. Elyot insists that Sybil never speak of her again…but she has clearly heard way too much about Amanda to let it go.
Once their conversation takes them indoors, Amanda comes onto the terrace from her own rooms, along with her new husband Victor (Matthew Martinez Hannon) and they begin a very similar conversation, this one centering on Victor’s need to discover more about his new wife’s chaotic first marriage but echoing a lot of what Elyot and Sybil said. Neither Amanda nor Elyot has much good to say about their exes, but their new spouses’ insistence on learning everything about them suggests a tension that belies how much they claim to love each other.
Of course, the first time Elyot and Amanda find themselves outside alone and see each other, those old fireworks are renewed. They both try to deny it, but then they hear the hotel’s orchestra play what was clearly one of “their songs,” after which they can’t keep their hands off of each other, and it does not take long before they decide to abscond to Paris and figure out what happens to their marriages later. These are the kind of “careless” people Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote about, and they are all the more careless because they have to know how incendiary they are as a couple: a new romance may start out hot but, at some point, it is going to explode.
Director Frank marks this production as his own from the outset. Before the action begins, we meet a woman who (speaking French) tells us exactly what is happening. The woman, an exaggerated artsy type with a long cigarette holder, is played wonderfully by Bradley Halverson, who later will play a housekeeper named Louise. Halverson’s challenge is to play the over-the-top artsy but hyper-controlled French woman while simultaneously providing narration backed by huge body movements and expressions so non-French speakers will be able to follow it. They succeed brilliantly, providing a clear indication that this farce will be even sillier than usual.
That thought is echoed when Elyot and Amanda hear their music, which seems to affect both of them viscerally, contorting their bodies until they come together in a tango. Tango, the dance that holds the most tension and potential for violence of any dance form, is a perfect choice. It is both extremely sensual and seductive and simultaneously angry and foreboding. There are a lot of similar touches Frank adds, but this is both the most obvious and the best one.
The play takes place on a Joe Schermoly set that, in Act One, drips with elegance (quite literally, as gauzy curtains hang everywhere), and then, in an Act Two that takes place in a hideaway flat in Paris, gets dressed down quite a bit and filled with cheap-looking furniture. Between that set change and the mess left onstage after the explosive second act, this is an insane show for the two-person running crew.
The title Private Lives comes from something Amanda says to Victor in an attempt to explain the complexity of her previous marriage: “I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives. It all depends on a combination of circumstances…That was the trouble with Elyot and me, we were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle.” Both she and Elyot have seemingly decided to marry the exact opposite sort of person. As Elliot says to Sybil, “Love is no use unless it’s wise, and kind, and undramatic. Something steady and sweet, to smooth out your nerves when you’re tired. Something tremendously cozy and unflurried by scenes and jealousies.” Coward, however, understands that “if the right spark is struck, there’s no knowing what one mightn’t do,” and that love and hate are so inexorably intertwined that one can naturally bleed into the other…at least for as long as the inevitable fight lasts.
Private Lives is presented by Raven Theatre and runs through Nov 13 at 6157 N. Clark St, Chicago. For tickets and information, please visit Raven Theatre or call (773) 338-2177. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.