Friday, December 7, 2018

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Private Lives"

Disclosure: the reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

With a trusting director at the helm of a witty script from an internationally renowned playwright, a gifted ensemble acting company who inhabit their characters and interpret the dialogue brilliantly, impressive period and character-driven costumes, and a stunning art deco inspired set [be sure to watch it transform during the intermission], the result is a high caliber collaborative production of Noel Coward's comedy of manners, Private Lives, at the Cloverdale Playhouse.

There's a lot to get right for Coward aficionados: the mis-en-scene that scenic designer J. Scott Grinstead delivers in restrained period detail; costumes by Danny Davidson-Cline that define characters in both their sophisticated social moments and their more pedestrian everyday lives; and age-appropriate actors who appear comfortable in the physical trappings while delivering witty epigrammatic badinage that helps create characters whose narcissism and surface charm disguises their emptiness and insecurities yet manages somehow to endear them to us.

Act I provides a clever set-up for what is to come. Unbeknownst to one another, divorced couple Elyot and Amanda are honeymooning with their new spouses Sibyl and Victor at the same hotel in adjoining rooms, and each of the new spouses is fixated on the uncomplimentary behavior of the former spouses of their new partners; there's a lot of truth in Elyot's and Amanda's reputations, as will be discovered later. -- Inevitably, Elyot and Amanda meet on their adjacent balconies and rekindle the passion that both attracted them and caused their breakup; so they leave their new spouses in the lurch for an assignation in Amanda's Paris apartment.

Written in 1930 as a vehicle for himself and frequent co-star Gertrude Lawrence [and with a young Lawrence Olivier in the cast], Coward professed to have written his "intimate comedy" in only four days. -- Having already penned Fallen Angels, The Vortex, Hay Fever, and Easy Virtue, Coward was no stranger to threats of censorship; and Coward was able to soothe the censor's reservations about a still married couple's adulterous relationship by showing them how it could all be managed "in good taste".

Mr. Winkelman's able cast are up to the task. From the 17th Century onwards, comedy of manners assumes that one can get away with almost anything as long as it is done with style; so here in Private Lives the style and wit -- and the assuredness of the Playhouse actors -- allows audiences to root for them despite disapproval of their actions and motives.

There is no denying the chemistry between Nathan Jacobs [Elyot] and Alison Beach [Amanda], both making debut appearances at the Playhouse. Their repartee is infectious; their commitment to conflict and resolution is convincing; their manipulation of each other and their new spouses is confident; they seem so comfortable in one another's company that carries audiences along for the ride. -- When they agree to have safe words in order to diffuse predictable fault-finding and aggressive arguments, audiences are prepared for some wildness to come in the final two acts.

Sarah Housley [Sibyl] and Chris Paulk [Victor] are admirable foils to Mr. Jacobs and Ms. Beach. Both are back on the stage after a long hiatus, but have not lost the stage-cred of the past. Sibyl and Victor both attempt to control or "manage" Elyot and Amanda, a scheme that is bound to fail. Each is convinced of their position to impose restrictions on people who resist any attempt to be harnessed, but when push comes to shove a triumph is unsure, and one can't help but believe that they are a better match with each other than with their legal partners.

We delight in the various maneuverings and try to second-guess the end result. And we are carried along by the actors' collective abilities to engage and surprise us. -- Even the secondary servant roles [Bailey Johnson's French maid Louise, and Greg Loggins as the concierge Francois] make indelible marks in this production.

All is not resolved at the end; we may never know how these two mismatched couples wind up; but we have been charmed by their company and leave the theatre with smiles on our faces.