I recently had a discussion with a colleague about the Noel Coward revival currently taking place on Chicago’s theater scene. Pride Films & Plays just wound up its production of “Design for Living” at the Rivendell Theater, which Paul and his wife attended. Later this week, Remy Bumppo will raise the curtain on “Fallen Angels” at Greenhouse Theater Center.
My colleague and I were discussing the general “chattiness” of a Coward script, and I drew a comparison between the cheeky, mid-20th century artist, and prolific, present-day play and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Both men have earned a place in the literary canon for witty, rapid-fire dialogue that (not coincidentally) gained public popularity in parallel with the modernization, mechanization and quickened pace of Western culture.
But you know what? When I proposed the analogy to Paul, I’d never actually read a Coward script, nor audited a production. Strange for a critic with a Master’s in English Literature and nearly seven years of theater criticism under her belt, but true nonetheless. This past Sunday afternoon, I addressed the oversight by attending the press opening of Coward’s most famous piece, “Private Lives,” from ShawChicago Theater Company. I had high expectations given Coward’s fame and ShawChicago’s solid reputation for quality shows. I’m sorry to report that these expectations were sorely disappointed.
“Private Lives,” as directed by Barbara Zahora, is a failure on many levels. But I suppose it’s logical to start with the questionable and distracting decision to have the four major players read their lines from music stands. This lent the appearance of a table read, rather than a fully developed production, and the actors themselves seemed at a loss.
As a divorced couple, newly married to other partners, Mary Michell and Michael Lasswell (Amanda and Elyot, respectively) strike the right vocal notes of banal boredom, self-involved passion and elite, upper class carelessness. So it would have been nice if they’d been able to look each other in the eye beyond the moments of physical altercation that occur in the script. How are audiences supposed to feel an indivisible connection between these two characters, when they are mostly standing still and flipping sheets of paper?
Leslie Ann Handelman does solid, whiny work as Elyot’s new bride Sybil — from a dialogue perspective. But the character’s lack of movement underscores that one is indeed, watching a performance. The comical wailing is there but there’s no corporeal bond with the material. It’s just line reading. And possibly the most likable character in the story, Amanda’s husband Victor, would have been so much more in the able Doug MacKechnie’s hands, if he’d been able to come out from behind the stand and engage a his audience.
I still found Coward’s writing fundamentally interesting and entertaining. So much so that I was prepared to forgive “Private Lives” its humorous attitude toward domestic violence. When the play was first produced in 1930, it was a different era. Women had the vote, but were struggling to shed the public and legal perception of them as frivolous property deserving of a slap.
However I was unfortunate enough to be seated next to an effusive male patron, who audibly repeated the “best” in misogynistic lines and laughed uproariously at the mere mention of assault. And as I think I’ve made clear, I had nothing else to look at. No scenery. No characters engaging with each other.
As it turns out, Coward and Sorkin have more in common than a general proclivity toward wordiness. The latter is famous for the “walk and talk” directing technique that provides fluid action served up alongside lengthy monologue. It gives the discourse organic liquidity. Sorkin doesn’t work without movement. Note to Director Zahora: Coward doesn’t either.
“Private Lives” runs through Dec. 14 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-587-7390 or visit the ShawChicago website.