If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

A Brisk "Private Lives" at Hartford Stage

Director Darko Tresnjak brings the same breathless enthusiasm and unbridled energy that marked his brilliant production of “Hamlet” at Hartford Stage last November to the theatre’s current revival of “Private Lives”. The Noel Coward classic may have seen better productions in its history, but I doubt one has ever been this brisk. And I, for one, am not complaining.

“Private Lives” is, of course, Coward’s snarky bon mot to the institution of marriage. Long divorced couple, Amanda (a ravishing Rachel Pickup) and Elyot (dashing Ken Barnett), are each on new honeymoons when they have the misfortune to run into each other on adjoining balconies. Overlooking the French seaside and trading nasty barbs it isn’t long before the flame is rekindled and Amanda hops Elyot’s terrace for a drink. Impulsive as always they make sudden plans to dump their respective spouses and head for Amanda’s flat in Paris. That leaves newly rejected Sybil (Jenni Barber) and Victor (Henry Clarke) to meet under rather terrible circumstances on those same adjoining balconies a short time later.

Director Tresnjak made his best decision (after casting the leads) to run “Private Lives” without interruption. The original script calls for two intermissions to accommodate three acts which made the comedy run two hours and twenty minutes in its most recent Broadway revival. At Hartford, minus the intermissions, the play is finished in less than 95 minutes. Without any noticeable cuts to the text, Tresnjak keeps the action moving and it’s not always easy. The long middle section of “Private Lives” is, in essence, a series of battles between Amanda and Elyot as the cuddle, collide, rage and reconcile time and time again. It can prove wearisome even with good actors and the verbal gold Coward provides, and it doesn’t help that much of the physicality of the play comes close to today’s definition of domestic abuse.

Still, under Tresnjak’s breezy direction most of “Private Lives” works quite well due in large part to the potent chemistry between Pickup and Barnett. They thrash about the stage in this wordy battle-of-the-sexes with gleeful abandon and seem an ideal match of brazen equals. Pickup, in particular, has the flair, glamour and acid wit of classic Coward femme fatales and Barnett has the energy of a teenager with his impromptu piano playing an extra nice surprise here. It’s a shame that Jenni Barber’s high-pitched voice makes many of Sybil’s lines unintelligible but Clarke fares better as the foolish Victor with his rigid, misplaced righteousness always at the ready.

The glorious art deco settings by Alexander Dodge are a feast for the eyes and I loved the wild animal motifs he has scattered throughout Amanda’s spacious flat. Joshua Pearson’ costuming is also first-rate with Ms. Pickup being the main benefactor of his talents. All told, this is a solid revival of a Coward classic that shouldn’t disappoint.

“Private Lives” continues at Hartford Stage through February 8. For further information and ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at: 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.


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