Amanda (Amelia Pedlow and Elyot (Stanton Nash) look on as Sybil (Kerry Warren) and Victor (Carman Lacivita) fight in a scene from Noel Coward’s Private Lives at the Rep.
If playwright Noël Coward’s Private Lives
is to be believed, relationships a century ago were every bit as complex and seemingly inexplicable as they are today. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s (130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves; 314-968-4925; www.repstl.org)
rollicking production embraces the sophisticated slapstick of Coward’s comedy of manners while humorously challenging the more blatantly outdated misogyny.
Recently married, Elyot and Sybil Chase are enjoying the view from the terrace of a hotel in France. The honeymoon is off to a splendid start, though Sybil seems a bit preoccupied with Elyot’s first wife. When they go in to dress for dinner, Victor and Amanda Prynne step out to the terrace from the room next door. They, too, are recently married and on their honeymoon; this time it’s Victor who’s preoccupied with Amanda’s ex-husband.
Not to give too much away, but it turns out Elyot and Amanda are each other’s exes. The moment the two realize they have adjoining terraces, the panic, sparks and madcap humor in the script really take off.
Amanda (Amelia Pedlow) and Elyot (Stanton Nash) can’t deny their mutual affection in a scene from Noel Coward’s Private Lives.
Written in 1930, Coward’s deftly funny script features period-typical norms such as patriarchy and domestic violence as relationship goals. Fortunately, Coward was more forward thinking, and he constantly challenges presumptive norms, particularly by Amanda. She bristles at the mere thought of conventionality. Still, one of the things that makes this production so delightful is how malleable the clever script is in the hands of a talented cast, guided with considerable finesse by director Meredith McDonough.
Amelia Pedlow and Stanton Nash are well matched as the sharp-witted, feisty Amanda and cavalierly disaffected Elyot. Self-absorbed and unconsciously callous, their relationship threatens to combust, with scorched earth ferocity, at any moment. Prynne and Nash create believable chemistry. Their breaths flutter and postures change as soon as they become aware of each other. Their impromptu duet in the second act is an unexpected treat.
As Sybil, Kerry Warren’s shrill protestations, whether crying or throwing a tantrum, are perfectly pitched comic excess. In contrast, Carman Lacivita is humorously self-important and stuffy as the always alert, always judging Victor.
The gorgeous set design by Lex Liang and costumes by Kathleen Geldard are nicely lit by Colin Bills and complimented by Lindsay Jones’s sound design, which leans into the briefly elevated post-World War I mood. Contributions from fight choreographer Nathan Keepers, dialect coach Jill Walmsley Zager and intimacy directory Kaja Amado Dunn are apparent and welcome.
Sybil (Kerry Warren) and Victor (Carman Lacivita) stare in surprise in a scene from Noel Coward’s Private Lives.
Coward’s complacency toward domestic violence and dismissive attitude toward women in Private Lives
may be triggering for some audience members. I found the Rep’s delightfully cathartic show subtly self-aware and laugh-out-loud funny. A general rebellious attitude toward the patriarchy updates the tone without losing any laughs. A strong cast that leans into the cartoonish and lavishly over-the-top approach helps audiences to thoroughly enjoy the witty show. While it's hard to know what the future holds for Amanda and Elyot, one hopes they'd find a happier balance in real life.
Private Lives at the Repertory Theatre through Sunday, October 23. Showtimes vary. Tickets are $23 to $92