Noël Coward’s Private Lives

Coward

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.

Both Your Houses (October 8, 2014)

The cast of 'Both Your Houses'
The cast of ‘Both Your Houses’ (Source:Johnny Knight)

No mid-sized Chicago theater troupe puts on a period drama with the panache of Remy Bumppo. Pick an epoch. It doesn’t matter. Though not exactly toiling in obscurity, the company lacks the high-profile visibility of a Steppenwolf, Goodman or Lookingglass Theatre. May the opening production of Bumppo’s 18th season “Both Your Houses,” finally put an end to that injustice.

A witty political satire that feels ripped from the headlines with themes of patronage-influenced stagnation and Congressional corruption, playwright Maxwell Anderson’s 1933 script provides the gifted Bummpo cast with more than just an opportunity to look stunning in late-Prohibition Era costumes (kudos to designer Emily Waecker). In press materials, the production is described as capturing “the charm and fervor of the classic film ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ and hit television series ‘The West Wing,’ while simultaneously challenging the plausibility of change a la ‘The Daily Show.'”

It’s a credit to Anderson’s work that he’s able to weave whimsy, romance and sharp dialogue into a deadly serious and effective fabric. In a deliberately nonpartisan way, “Both Your Houses” argues that in the first half of the 20th century, one’s vote hardly matters. Either guy (and yes, the candidate is almost certainly a man) is going to bring the same MO to Washington: load up on legislative pork, bring it back home, get re-elected, repeat. Of course everything has changed since then and the American governing process is cleaner, more honest…

Yeah… not so much. If anything, the lobbyist-infested halls of Congress are more inert and cynical than ever. Remy Bumppo’s choice of season opener could be viewed as a present-day civic statement, and the production’s press release doesn’t discourage the interpretation: “[It] will run throughout the lead-up to the 2014 midterm elections, in which 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 22 seats in the Senate will be up for re-election.”

The statement appears to be this: the system is broken. The good guys and the bad are nearly indistinguishable. Sometimes doing what it takes to protect the country looks an awful lot like criminal activity. In other situations, the right action is taken for all the morally worst reasons. But it’s not the officials who protect the status quo. We do. The voting public. And we don’t have to.

And such fun the audience has while receiving a critical warning. The sharp costumes and snappy discourse, a multi-layered plot that includes romantic intrigue and familial piety — all executed with control by Remy Bumppo Artistic Director Emeritus James Bohnen.

Bohnen’s affectionate history with the company is evident in the intimate vulnerability he elicits from the performances of the cast, which includes Artistic Associates David Darlow and Linda Gillum, as well as Ensemble Members Peter A. Davis and Eliza Stoughton. Darlow and Gillum, who both delivered searing, emotional work in Remy Bumppo’s late 17th season triumph, “Our Class,” are back stealing scenes respectively as a battle worn Congressman with a taste for illegal spirits, and a scheming Gal Friday with a sharp tongue.

The characters are drawn somewhat formulaically and a 21st century observer might bemoan the lack of a strong central female. There’s not much diversity to be found here. Blame it on 1933. Be that as it may, the work onstage is faultless.

As sort of a Remy Bumppo and Artistic Associate Greg Matthew Anderson superfan, I initially took the latter’s absence from the cast list rather hard. But the company’s talent roster is such that the disappointment couldn’t last. I settled for a press opening glimpse of Anderson in the crowd, and enjoyed another satisfying synthesis of intelligent subject matter, historical perspective and winning performances from the dependably entertaining Remy Bummpo.