Private Lives sparkles at Everyman Theatre

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Carol Sorgen

Noel Coward’s 1930’s comedy of manners, Private Lives, is a lighter-than-meringue confection. For a thoroughly enjoyable bit of escapism, this production currently playing at Everyman Theatre is right on the mark.

The plot is simple: Amanda and Elyot divorced five years ago but find themselves suite-by-suite on the French Riviera, each honeymooning with a new spouse, Victor and Sibyl. The formerly married partners see each other, sparks fly, and they run off with each other.

Was their divorce a mistake, or is their newly rekindled romance a mere longing for what once was? All will be revealed in the next three acts through Coward’s witty banter, expertly delivered by company members Deborah Hazlett and Bruce Randolph Nelson, with strong — albeit less wordy — performances by supporting cast members Erin Lindsey Krom, Peter Wray, and Sophie Hinderberger as Louise, the French maid.

True, there are several lines in the play that reflect the sensibility of another time and make us cringe today — as when Elyot declares that “some women should be struck regularly, like gongs.”

Amanda gives as good as she gets, though, and her mature sparring with Elyot is an interesting counterpoint to Sibyl — at first glance a bit of fluff, as the Brits would say, who eventually proves herself to have what it takes to be an Amanda-in-the-making.

Nuanced acting

In his portrayal of the world-weary Elyot, Bruce Nelson gets just as much mileage out of a glance or a gesture as he does from his rapid-fire dialogue, while Peter Wray’s Victor comes across as a thoroughly decent, albeit at times befuddled, chap.

Kudos to the four main characters for their British accents, which they managed quite admirably to keep on top of throughout the evening. That’s not an easy task, especially with such a quick-paced, dialogue-intense play. And a special mention to Sophie Hinderberger’s expertly delivered scenes, in French yet.

It can’t be said that there is any deep meaning to Private Lives, but quite frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. Not every theatrical piece has to be a teachable moment. Sometimes sheer enjoyment is the order of the day. As Elyot says to Amanda, “Let’s be superficial and … enjoy the party as much as we can.”

Period design and costumes

In addition to the expert performances, a large part of the pleasure of this production is its thoroughly gorgeous set design and spot-on costuming. From the first-act hotel balcony scene with its angular Art Deco details to the second- and third-act scenes set in an exquisitely staged Paris apartment, you are instantly transported to ever-so-stylish France (and may be left wondering how to re-create that living room in your own home; I know I am).

The costumes similarly reflect the era, but also serve to enhance the different ages and personalities of the characters. Sibyl’s romantic dresses reinforce the sweetness and naïveté she brings to her new marriage (her first) to Elyot, while Amanda’s outfits, no less of the era, are more sophisticated, seductive and worldly (as befits a woman who has had a few dalliances along the way).

Private Lives marks the Everyman directorial debut of company member Carl Schurr, who served for 25 years as the producing artistic director for Pennsylvania’s Totem Pole Playhouse. If this assured production is an indication of Schurr’s skill, Everyman audiences will have much to look forward to in future efforts.

You could go to New York to see Private Lives currently running on Broadway (starring “Sex and the City” star Kim Cattrall), but you probably wouldn’t have any better a time than you will right here.

Private Lives runs through Dec. 11, with performances Wednesday through Saturday at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Tickets are $10-$45. Call (410) 752-2208 or go to www.everymantheatre.org.