Through July 13
Shakespeare Theatre Company
450 Seventh St. NW
Theatrical lore says legendary British gay playwright and actor Nöel Coward conjured up “Private Lives” late one night in a Tokyo hotel room in 1929.
In a semi dream state, the renowned sophisticate imagined his lifelong pal and stage star Gertrude Lawrence dressed to the nines playing opposite himself in an urbane comedy about a pair of divorcees who couldn’t live with or without each other. Several weeks later laid up with flu in Shanghai, Coward penned the romantic comedy classic in just four days.
“Private Lives” opened in London in 1930 with Coward and Lawrence (as planned) starring as Amanda and Elyot, the divorced couple who look fabulous behaving badly. Over the years, Coward’s comedy of manners has proved an enduring work. In subsequent crowd-pleasing productions, Amanda and Elyot were played by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and later Joan Collins and Keith Baxter.
And now director Maria Aitken brings a gorgeous, funny, alive yet faithful production of Coward’s “Private Lives” to the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansbugh Theatre. Before directing, Aitken made her name on the British stage playing some of Coward’s ladies, and it shows. She certainly has a handle on the material. Here she’s expertly offering all that is Coward: witty repartee, amusing situations, travel, soignée evening clothes, smart cocktails and cigarettes incessantly offered from silver cases.
The action kicks off on the Riviera where Amanda and Elyot are honeymooning with their respective spouses, blustering Victor (Jeremy Webb) and spunky, young Sibyl (the diminutive Autumn Hurlbert). Unbeknownst to Amanda and Elyot their luxe hotel rooms overlooking the Mediterranean are located side by side. Naturally, the unaware exes soon meet on their adjacent balconies and smoldering passions reignite.
Once reunited, they’re off to Amanda’s Paris flat. Alone except for occasional interruptions by the sneezy maid Louise (Jane Ridley), the lovers enjoy Bohemian bliss until too much togetherness reminds them of why they divorced in the first place. A brawl ensues.
Played with much grace and power by Amato, Amanda is a moneyed woman of her time. She smokes and drinks. She has affairs without regret. But what’s more interesting is how she refuses to conform to gender roles of the day. No doubt she was a pursued debutante, a flapper and at 30 she’s a twice-married woman of the world who is unafraid to speak openly about sex and relationships. Her ex-husband Elyot played snappishly by Waterston acts without remorse too. Perfectly cast as the iconic battling lovers, they look right together — well made and elegant. They have chemistry.
Again, the production (which enjoyed a successful run at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company in 2012) is truly well done. Aitken’s team celebrates the era with a great attention to detail. Designer Allen Moyer sets the scene with Raoul Dufy inspired cityscapes on the curtains — scenic seaside Deauville (act one) and romantic Paris (acts two and three). The hotel balconies are perfectly realistic and Amanda’s high-ceiling traditional apartment is updated with lavender walls and African masks by its current occupant. Candice Donnelly makes make Amanda a fashion plate (per Coward’s instruction) in a ravishing Champagne-colored gown and chic street clothes — a sleek jacket, peaked hat and clunky ethnic bangles like those worn by the between-the-war fashionistas seen in the paintings of lesbian portraitist Romaine Brooks and photographs by Man Ray.
Aitken’s handling of Coward’s witty paean to fiery but not sensible love is top notch. It’s the perfect introduction to this Coward gem, and a wonderful refresher for those who haven’t been there in a while.