Reviewed by Shelley A. Sackett
Nothing welcomes light summery breezes like a witty Nöel Coward comedy of manners, and the Dorset Theatre Festival is spot on in its choice of the timeless ‘Private Lives’ to open its 42nd season. “We believe ‘the play’s the thing’ here at Dorset, and this is one of the most fabulous plays of all times- full of wit and sophisticatedly funny. Coward captures the universal humor that sometimes ensues once we lose our minds by falling in love,” said Artistic Director Dina Janis by email.
The plot is deceptively simple. Divorced spouses Elyot (Shawn Fagan) and Amanda (the sublime and worth-the-price-of-admission Rachel Pickup) have remarried and are honeymooning with their respective new spouses, Sybil (Anna Crivelli) and Victor (Hudson Oz). By the divine intervention of Coward’s wicked imagination, they end up in adjacent rooms on the night they are each to start their new lives. When they see each other across their shared balcony’s hedge, the sparks fly and they impulsively flee their hapless new partners to resume what they have idealized as their romantic destiny.
Back at Amanda’s posh Paris apartment, their fiery passion predictably devolves from love to the same incendiary anger from whose ashes desire was restored. Couches practically take flight, ashtrays become bullets and words are poison darts, aimed with years of practiced marksmanship to draw maximum blood. Think Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ or as their tabloid selves (they actually played these roles in 1983 at New York’s Lunt-Fontanne Theater), and you get the picture.
Their aggrieved new spouses track them down, and the hit-and-miss slapstick ensues. By the curtain’s fall, the pendulum has swung back and forth so many times for Amanda and Elyot that it becomes clear they really are meant for each other. Anyone else would have been bedridden with a bad case of vertigo ages ago; these two enfants terribles are not only still standing, but actually relish the prospect of round three.
The production’s shining stars are two: Rachel Pickup as Amanda and Lee Savage’s gorgeous Art Deco sets. Ms. Pickup gives a Broadway-caliber performance (where, coincidentally, she recently appeared at the St. James in Coward’s “Present Laughter” with Kevin Kline). The impossibly willowy actress is all comedic physicality and glamor, delivering her lines and gestures with surgical precision. Hers is not your average summer theater performance and it is as welcome as it is mesmerizing.
Equally astonishing are the period sets Mr. Savage manages to create in rural Vermont; these too are Broadway worthy. The hotel terraces in Act One are as stunning as they are humorous in their mirror images of floor to ceiling blue draperies and wrought iron balustrades. The details of Act Two’s Paris flat are like a ‘Where’s Waldo” for the audience, complete with Victrola, piano, fainting couch and polar bear skin rug. Asked what was the biggest challenge in mounting this production, Ms. Janis replied without hesitation, “Making the Deco Period come to life on our budget!” Clearly, she succeeded.
Although the second act drags and the rest of the cast pales compared to Ms. Pickup, the production is a theatrical icon whose appeal is as timeless as pink champagne. “The play really gives it all to us, with its sparkling language and the collision of its characters, completely recognizable to a contemporary audience for their passion and for their capacity for selfishness, obstinance and even cruelty,” Director Evan Yionoulis said by email. One can almost hear Nöel Coward whispering, “Touché, darling. Touché.”
‘Private Lives’ – Written by Nöel Coward. Directed by Evan Yionoulis; Set Design: Lee Savage. Lighting Design: Donald Holder. Costume Design: Katherine B. Roth. Sound Design: Jane Shaw. Fight Choreographer: BH Barry.
Through July 6 at Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vt. For more information, visit dorsettheatrefestival.org or call 802-867-2223.