Throw away all your preconceived notions about the stoicism and storied restraint of the English upper crust – when it comes to connubial combat, these proper Britishers go after one another like the Mongol hordes. Off come the kidskin gloves and out come the rapier-sharp repartee and the stinging barbs. At least that's the tenor of the marital martial arts in Noel Coward's witty comedy of manners, Private Lives, now onstage in a spirited and sprightly production at the Mad Cow Theatre directed by Timothy Williams.
When Elyot and Amanda, a wealthy and haughty divorced couple, find themselves both honeymooning with their new spouses at the same French resort hotel, old embers are reignited and they decide to leave their latest partners in the lurch. Fleeing to Paris, they soon discover that the smoldering sparks lead inevitably to the same old conflagrations – sweet nothings turn to fiery recriminations and cooing quickly becomes confrontational.
Originally produced in 1930, Private Lives has had many stage revivals, as well as several film and TV versions, often attracting top acting talent to its four juicy main roles. Luckily for Orlando audiences, there is no dearth of fine acting in the play's latest local incarnation. Jennifer Christa Palmer dazzles as the imperious Amanda Prynne: Her bearing is regal and high-toned, but when it's called for, she can shift direction in a flash and get as down-and-dirty as a cage fighter. Philip Nolen plays the trim, suave Elyot Chase, a part somewhat out of character for the hefty comedian (Coward himself originated the role), but Nolen's able portrayal is anchored by his exquisite comic timing and chameleon-like visage.
Sarah Jane Fridlich and Kevin Zepf round out the quartet as Sybil and Victor, the two harried other halves trying to make sense of their nascent, but suddenly incompatible newlywed unions. All four actors capture Coward's ribald characterizations and deliver his rapid-fire dialogue in crisp English accents. Scenic design by Cindy White and costumes by Corrine Walsh add the right touch of to-the-manner-born sophistication.
My only cavil is the theater's decision to forgo real cigarettes, which in most productions the actors would extract from a stylish silver case – replacing them, oddly, with mechanical substitutes shaken from a Lucky Strike pack. I'm sure that Elyot and Amanda would have inhaled only the finest Turkish blends. Really, after bludgeoning your husband or wife with murderous invective, is it too much to expect to end the row with a tasty cocktail and a genuinely relaxing smoke?
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