Play Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” too real, too broad or, worse, both and it loses its champagne fizz, not to mention the wisdom beneath its wit. Perfs with subtext can deepen and even darken bon vivants Amanda and Elyot (as demonstrated on Broadway in 2002 by Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan). But play it too much like Albee — or as a burlesque — and one loses that sublime Cowardly touch that embraces the superficial, celebrates escapism and delights in that damned thing called love.
A polished Tom Hewitt and sleek Shannon Cochran find moments of passion, humor and style, but they are mostly overwhelmed in Long Wharf Theater’s unsubtle, sometimes coarse production that isn’t sure if it wants to be “Who’s Afraid of Noel Coward?” or a lost episode of “Dynasty.”
One first thinks of the latter when confronted by Kris Stone’s tacky, stucco’d set of adjoining hotel balconies in the South of France. Soap opera histrionics then are unleashed by Christian Corp’s shrill, obvious and altogether unappealing Sibyl. It makes one wonder what Hewitt’s sophisticated Elyot sees in this crude, tanned vixen, reducing his splendid ambivalence to mere stupidity, a trait Coward’s beautiful people never have.
This is a honeymoon from hell even before Elyot lays eyes on his ex, who has just remarried as well. At least with Amanda’s new husband (Will Kempe) she gets some “normalcy,” albeit boredom, from her steady new spouse. But while likable, Kempe fails to find the right comic touch as well.
Happily, the new spouses exit and Hewitt and Cochran can finally find their own rhythms, balance and sense of privileged play.
Chemistry of the leads has potential: The dashing Hewitt is not only cool but commanding, full of lust, temper and the occasional spurt of violence. Cochran is fully capable of giving as good as she gets and is equally passionate and willful. (And angularly elegant, too. She looks smashing in Candice Donnelly’s smart outfits, giving the slender thesp a startling makeover from her bravura turn in Off Broadway’s “Bug.”)
This, in short, is a pair made for each other: articulate, glib, argumentative, active, wicked, acidic and as devoted to their independent and nonconformist ways as to their wedding vows. Amid their quips and stings, they hear not a traditional marriage march but a lilting and sometimes lonely song of their own. (There are some swell moments in the second act — including “Someday I’ll Find You” — by musical vet Hewitt and the lovely voiced Cochran.)
But under helmer Kim Rubinstein, this natural and delicate duet is shaken, not merely stirred, with the lead actors too often pushing their perfs. This too-frequent misstep is only lessened by the way-over-the-top playing when the abandoned spouses catch up with Amanda and Elyot, who have fled to a very flat Paris flat, turning the proceedings into a French farce.
Coward’s 1930 comedy needn’t always be played as dry as a martini. There’s a good case to be made for showing the shadows amid the gaiety, some of the doubts, fears and paradoxes that are shared in the private and confounding world of marriage. But in this production, both style and substance are overshadowed by a careless hand.