Raging anger, which can wreck relationships, is also a turn-on, and Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy still makes that point with slashing wit 75 years later. Amazingly, “Lives” was written in just four days while the Master lay in bed with the flu — a fact belied by its lean, tight structure — and the Pasadena Playhouse version about battling lovers who can’t live with or without each other entertainingly demonstrates why the play has endured.
Casting has always been a vital key to the play’s success, and Coward scored an initial triumph starring opposite Gertrude Lawrence. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton nearly destroyed it in 1983, despite the fact that they actually lived a pattern of fighting and making up in real life.
Under Art Manke’s stylish direction, leads Andrew Borba and Blake Lindsley convey both the affection and murderous hostility that make their erratic behavior believable.
Borba, as hot-tempered Elyot, furnishes the show’s strongest portrayal. His British accent is exaggerated but not outlandish, and his clipped phrasing is ideally suited to Coward’s bitchy banter. When Elyot tells his new bride, Sybil (Monette Magrath), on the first night of their honeymoon in Deauville, that he’s “incredibly, magnificently glad” they’ve gotten married, he makes his ambivalence perfectly clear, fielding her jealous questions about his ex-wife, Amanda (Blake Lindsley) and carrying off the play’s weakest scene.
Magrath overdoes the weepy, whiny aspects of Sybil at first, making it understandable that Elyot would utter the famous lines, “Don’t quibble, Sybil,” and “I should like to cut off your head with a meat ax,” but she eventually gains a firmer hold on the part and stands out in the closing episode.
Coward’s classic setup unfolds smoothly after Elyot discovers Amanda is also newly wed and staying at the same hotel. Amanda’s husband, Victor (an effectively priggish Brian McGovern), is the male counterpart of Sybil — a dull second choice. He drives his wife to distraction with persistent queries about her former marriage.
Instantly disillusioned with their dreary spouses, and still madly in love, Elyot and Amanda run off together, determined to avoid the calamitous quarrels that split them up in the first place.
When Amanda worries they’re living in sin, Elyot reassures her, “Not according to Catholics — they don’t recognize divorce,” and the story amusingly diagrams their futile efforts to function in harmony.
The romantic aspects of this rendezvous are accentuated by Tom Buderwitz’s extraordinary second-act set, consisting of an Eiffel Tower backdrop, sleek black and stainless furniture, modern sofa and grand piano bearing calla lilies, dramatically bathed in Peter Maradudin’s passionate purple lighting.
One of the production’s finest moments features Lindsley letting her hair down, climbing on top of the piano and slinking provocatively toward Elyot. She performs a lilting rendition of “Stardust” in English and French, a song used throughout and an ideal tune — with its convoluted melodic shifts — to reflect the twists and turns of the central relationship.
Lindsley, though sometimes overly brittle and edgy, has elegance and style, as well as the requisite self-dramatizing pretension. She wears Mary Vogt’s lush costumes, especially an off-the-shoulder, clinging purple satin gown, with appropriate flair and brandishes a cigarette gracefully.
Pacing occasionally slackens, a liability quickly forgotten when director Manke stages his unrestrained, physically bruising lovers bout. Amid Lindsley’s roar, “You damned, sadistic bully,” and Elyot’s cry, “You’re a vile-tempered, loose-living, wicked little beast,” the stars engage in a memorably choreographed fight, as she breaks a record over his head, he slaps her and kicks her into the pillows while chairs crash to the ground.
Manke’s aptitude for wild, emotionally driven battles also shines in the last, screaming confrontation between discarded spouses Magrath and McGovern, cleverly emphasizing Coward’s point: Hate is inextricably mixed with love.