In Private Lives, playwright Noël Coward tackles what is perhaps the biggest problem that modern couples face: how to manage each other. When two newlywed, upper-class British couples take adjacent honeymoon suites at a luxurious French seaside resort, the last thing that Elyot (Joseph Fuqua) and Amanda (Julie Granata), who have been divorced for five years, expect is that they and their new spouses — Sybil (Alyson Lindsay) and Victor (Matthew Floyd Miller) — will be sharing a balcony.
From this delirious premise onward, it’s all very symmetrical. The formerly married characters discover that they are still in love and run away together to Paris, leaving the freshly jilted newlyweds to team up and track down their wayward mates. In the hands of a less-gifted writer, this could get cutesy, but as done by the prince of sophistication, it’s anything but cute. In fact, even though it is now more than 80 years since Private Lives debuted on a London stage, this powerful play still retains the capacity to shock.
As Elyot Chase, the Noël Coward character who gets many of the play’s best lines, Fuqua is dazzling. He has great timing, his expressions and gestures are consistently original and well-thought-out, and he clearly relishes this chance to run wild with witty repartee. Granata’s fluid, alluring, and at times threatening turn as Amanda is also a tour de force, and together they carry the action forward with seemingly effortless momentum. Rather than being punished for regressing by getting back together, Elyot and Amanda are eventually rewarded for making the unconventional decision to follow their sophisticated intuition about one another rather than submit to the weight of convention and circumstance.
The actions that constitute the scandal at the play’s core are a series of arguments that begin playfully enough but, in a couple of instances, wind up resulting in actual violence. Perhaps standards have changed, and today we are more cognizant of the unfunny reality of domestic abuse, but I suspect that all the audiences who have seen this play over the decades have reacted with some dread to the stunning slaps that punctuate Coward’s punch lines.
When Victor and Sybil discover Elyot and Amanda at the apartment in Paris, they are flailing about on the floor in a full-blown free-for-all. Later, after a hilarious breakfast sequence that puts all four characters together on the same sofa, we learn of the burgeoning affection between Victor and Sybil when they, too, succumb to the seemingly irresistible pull of the lover’s spat. The reactions of Elyot and Amanda, who draw closer to one another as they watch the other two descend to their animalistic level, could stand for the point of view of the audience — appalled, certainly, but too fascinated to look away.
As the French maid Louise, Eileen DeSandre lightens the final act, but there’s still little in the way of consolation for those who would prefer to see a less savage and desperate version of how couples manage one another. When the curtain rings down on this outstanding production, there’s a distinct sense of relief that these people have finished their incessant and destructive bickering — at least for that night.