Calling “Private Lives” one of Noel Coward’s most enduring comedies is like calling “A Christmas Carol” one of Charles Dickens’ perennially popular short stories. It’s the play that keeps on giving — especially to summer theaters looking to fill out a season with a sure bet. At this point, the play (i.e. whether or not Amanda Prynne and Elyot Chase stay together or destroy each other first) is no longer the thing: more interesting is whether fresh faces can possibly breathe new life into a couple that’s been around for 78 years. Barrington Stage’s on-target production does manage a little mouth-to-mouth, but the patient isn’t out of danger just yet.
Everything is as it should be here: grand, expensive-looking sets by Karl Eigsti that include both the dueling seaside resort balconies and Amanda’s spacious, chic Parisian flat; sleek, fabulous and flattering period costumes by Elizabeth Flauto; lighting courtesy of Scott Pinkney that casts no shadow whatsoever on the proceedings; and capable players to inhabit Amanda and Elyot with enough chemistry to make audiences care.
In fact, “Private Lives” is receiving such a handsome, by-the-book, and (at just over two hours) briskly paced production from Barrington a.d. Julianne Boyd that the play itself is exposed for what it is: a somewhat dated, highly stylized, mostly predictable romantic comedy with as perfect a first act as one is ever likely to see, a sagging, overlong second act and a comic conclusion that wraps things up neatly.
For those who by some chance have missed seeing “Private Lives,” written by Coward in a mere four days as legend has it, it’s as tidy a sitcom as one could find: a divorced couple, Amanda and Elyot, after being apart for five years, meet again on their separate honeymoons. Still in love, they run away together to Paris to flirt and fight repeatedly before being tracked down by their new spouses.
Gretchen Egolf is particularly winning as Amanda, giving her a lanky, elegant, though delightfully loopy comic sophistication. And Christopher Innvar playing Elyot, looking and sounding very much like a young Elliot Gould, is certainly her match — though the couple are less convincing as fighters than lovers.
Rebecca Brooksher is perfectly fine in the mostly thankless role of Elyot’s new wife, Sibyl. And Mark H. Dold squeezes as much restrained comedy as possible out of Amanda’s replacement husband, Victor. Likewise Tandy Cronyn as Louise, the cranky French maid who doesn’t utter a word of English, but still manages to get her irritation across.
It’s just that one is left with a feeling of “deja vu all over again” (as Yogi Berra used to say). What’s missing is any sense of risk, which is essential to good theater, no matter how light the fare.
At the risk of Coward turning over in his grave, one wonders if it isn’t time to do something radically different with “Private Lives”: a modern-day version set in the Hamptons and the Upper East Side with a hard-drinking, violent Elyot? A same-sex rendering set in Napa and San Francisco? OK, maybe not.
Perhaps, more sensibly, it’s simply time to retire this old standard for a while and pull out something a little less familiar. Like a fine old wine, this one maybe needs to age a little more and wait for some newer generation to come along and rediscover it.