“Don’t quibble, Sibyl” may be one of the great lines (not to mention neatest rhymes) in 20th century drama, but Rebecca Saire’s chirpily posh Sibyl is among the only performers who doesn’t prompt quibbles — or worse — in Philip Franks’ new National Theater staging of Coward’s indestructible 1930 comedy. So accomplished and cunning is Coward’s structure that audiences this time around could well think they are seeing the actual play, especially as seduced by some exceedingly witty designs from Stephen Brimson Lewis in a welcome return to the auditorium where (with “Les Parents Terribles” in 1994) he made among the ripest use to date of a unique space. But even as Brimson Lewis dazzles us with a Dufy-inspired frontcloth and then a Paris flat for the second and third acts that pays sly homage to virtually every artistic movement of the early 20th century, one is still left with two leading performers who have quite simply landed in the wrong play. And without a commanding, stylish and — most crucially — a sexually charged pair of warring lovers, “Private Lives” comes awfully close to resembling a public spectacle.
There’s a presentational quality, of course, to the sparring between Amanda Prynne (Juliet Stevenson) and Elyot Chase (Anton Lesser), the once-married couple who take a bruise or two to discover that they will forever be one another’s best audience, no matter how scarred they may get in the process. Indeed, the production’s excellent program quotes Edward Albee, and one can see why: What are Amanda and Elyot but an incipient (and younger) version of George and Martha from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, with the divorced pair’s new spouses, Sibyl and Victor (Dominic Rowan), as a fledgling Nick and Honey?
The obvious difference has to do with that defining Coward gloss which laces the comedy with pain and rue rather than, as in Albee’s later play, calling upon humor to leaven a lethal night’s journey into day.
Director Franks has moments that reward his attention to the shifting moods of Coward’s text, not least as Amanda lapses into reverie, an easily wounded woman for all her showy brittleness.
And, when — on her second honeymoon in Deauville — Stevenson’s Amanda first glimpses on the neighboring hotel balcony her dreaded ex-partner, Elyot, as seen through her make-up mirror, the actress gives a gentle toss of the head, as if to rouse herself from every divorcee’s worst nightmare.
Stevenson is best during those quieter moments that don’t require her to vamp about the stage Theda Bara-style or do an embarrassing turn as Isadora Duncan during the second of three acts which is also the most vulgarly staged. (Malcolm Ranson’s fight scenes are so ploddingly elaborate that one is left gratefully pondering the mustard-colored walls of a set with views out on to Sacre Coeur.)
Otherwise, this may be the first “Private Lives” in which the Amanda seems more masculine than her Elyot, a role for which the spry but on this occasion vaguely prissy Lesser (who played an erstwhile Troilus to Stevenson’s Cressida at the Royal Shakespeare Co. over a decade ago) could not be less well cast. Stevenson’s volatility has served her beautifully in such roles as Hedda Gabler .
But where is the elegance, the finesse, the grace required for what, after all, must first and foremost be an exercise in style? It’s as if both actors are so busy playing subtext that they don’t allow the charm covering over the play’s very real cruelties to come forth.
As for sex, forget it: despite repeated assertions in the play that each partner was the other’s first (and unmistakably best) lover, neither star gives off the erotic ferocity of caged animals in heat, even if Elyot does aver that “women should be struck regularly, like gongs.”
Sometime, too, it might be nice to see this play with actors cast as youthful as the characters are, no matter how much “older and wiser” Elyot facing his second marriage claims to be. (Gwyneth Paltrow and Billy Crudup, anyone?)
If Franks had actually played up this peculiar reversal in the playing of the piece, with a mannish female lead opposite a suggestively effeminate man, he might have been on to a truly revisionist approach to this play at welcome odds with its last major London revival, which featured an utterly by-the-book turn from Joan Collins.
Instead, the central performances here allow a pair of talented players to sink ever so persistently into quicksand, with only that set and the supporting players (though not Darlene Johnson’s hammy, badly accented maid) on hand to bail them out.
Truth to tell, Rowan’s Victor is a bit too lumpen: However much the character is meant to represent security for Amanda after the abrasions of Elyot, it’s hard to see what in this Victor might have attracted Amanda to him.
But the actor has a terrific comic riposte near the end lashing out at people foolish enough to lose luggage, and of the four principals, the collapse of the sartorially fastidious Victor comes closest to encapsulating the entire social breakdown that the last scene deliciously describes. Saire’s Sibyl, meanwhile, doesn’t torpedo the play with a funny voice the way Sara Crowe did opposite Joan Collins. Instead, she takes chirpily to heart every indignity that she suffers, which — in Coward’s world — is to get life precisely backward.
“I won’t be made serious,” Amanda tells Victor, which is where Sibyl errs in taking a literal view of mankind at his most beastly whereas for Coward, one senses, such beastliness was bliss.