Revivals have become Broadway’s bread and butter in recent years, and it sometimes seems that most have all the flavor the metaphor implies. But Howard Davies’ “Private Lives” is something else entirely: a heady, heaping spoonful of pure caviar. Celebrated in London –which is saying a lot, since Noel Coward’s comedy seems to reappear in the West End every time they change the guards at Buckingham Palace — the production glitters even more brightly on Broadway, at the tail end of a particularly grueling season. In its mixture of wit and style, smarts and feeling, it is simply without peer on a New York stage.
The director’s approach is by no means revisionist: The play runs its merrily mean course on traditional if splendidly stylish sets by Tim Hatley (the seaside hotel of act one is wonderfully rendered as an art nouveau wedding cake), in Jenny Beavan’s elegantly cut period costumes. And it respects the perfect tailoring of Coward’s words, too.
But Davies and his chief collaborators, the mutually sublime Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, who give performances as savagely funny as they are emotionally fertile, find provocative new colors in its famously flippant dialogue. Playing with delicate shifts in tempo and tone, they allow surges of vivid feeling to bubble up in between bouts of arch repartee. A comedy that is often rattled off like a bedroom farce becomes a richly rewarding exploration of the confounding nature of love and attraction.
This isn’t to say the production gives short shrift to Coward’s acidic wit. On the contrary, Rickman and Duncan, reunited on Broadway some 15 years after playing another pair of romantic combatants under Davies’ direction in “Les Liaisons Dangereuse,” reveal perfectly matched comic styles, as subtle as they are assured.
Watching the emerging acerbity of the characters they’re playing, the divorced Amanda and Elyot, both honeymooning with their new spouses at that seaside hotel, is the chief delight of the play’s delicious opening act.
Languidly petting his new bride, Emma Fielding’s pert and prettily played Sibyl, as he deflects the conversation from his romantic past, Rickman’s Elyot is clearly a man whose personality has been temporarily tranquilized. Only the flickering of an occasional eyebrow, or a flamboyant slouch indicating irritation, suggest the potential for theatrics underneath the Elyot’s tailored surfaces. And as she coos on cue to the gamely earnest Victor of Adam Godley, Amanda, too, seems to be working to keep up a placid mask of composure.
But when the two are left alone on their respective balconies, it doesn’t take long for sparks to start flying. Indeed, as we watch Amanda’s face register astonishment, then dismay and finally a warmly pleasurable relish when she first catches sight of Elyot, it’s as if a well-oiled machine that has been idling begins to warm up.
Soon enough it’s at full throttle. Abandoned by their spouses after mutually desperate attempts to escape, Amanda and Elyot begin lacing into each other with playful abandon, and Duncan and Rickman bring such sly and witty inflections to Coward’s cutting dialogue — the amount of scorn Duncan pours into three words, “Very flat, Norfolk,” is impossible to convey — that it’s easy to overlook how clearly the actors also convey the submerged feeling that simmers beneath the brittle words.
With their warring instincts suddenly activated, it’s not long before Amanda and Elyot’s mutually loving ones break out into the open, too. The brisk clip of the dialogue subsides into a torturously slow give and take; silences fall heavily in between the sarcasms. A sad tenderness springs into Duncan’s darkly glittering eyes.
It’s in this transition that the sorcery of the production most amazes. Mere minutes after whipping the audience into a frenzy of laughter, Rickman and Duncan reduce us to a kind of painful rapture: The aching truth of the feeling between Amanda and Elyot, their sudden, agonized recognition that the love they still share is the purest expression of their proud individuality, strikes us with a terrible poignancy. The flight to Paris becomes something more than a farcical adventure: It’s a matter of life and death.
Successful as it is at presenting the play’s glossy comic surfaces — Duncan’s honey-dipped politesse as she serves coffee in the last scene is alone worth the price of admission — the production more crucially reawakens us to the radical ideas that Coward dressed up in funny banter: Here and elsewhere, the playwright questions the nature of love as it has been codified and celebrated through centuries of Western culture. Is it, as Sibyl and Victor and the rest are led to believe, a state of placid comfort, a happily-ever-after heaven on earth? (Tellingly, Coward chooses to make clear that Amanda and Elyot don’t buy the standard religious pieties either.) Or is it simply an electric current between two personalities that can express itself in combat just as naturally as cuddling, flippancy as naturally as fond declarations?
Whatever name it is given, the feeling between Amanda and Elyot is a force so powerful it even manages to set a few fires in the temperate hearts of Sibyl and Victor. But even as these two bring the play to its farcical finale, tearing at each other with a violence that silences their amused spouses, Rickman and Duncan rivet the attention with a mere glance, as Elyot looks imploringly at Amanda and reaches gently for her hand. The moment contains a sad irony to rival the comic one in the foreground: It’s only when these two wonderfully articulate creatures aren’t saying a word that they can really communicate.