‘Private Lives’ equal public fun at the Lansburgh

James Waterston, Jeremy Webb, Bianca Amato and Autumn Hurlbert in "Private Lives." (Credit: Scott Suchman)

WASHINGTON, June 17, 2014 — While actress Bianca Amato is the promotional face For the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current production of Noël Coward’s irreverent comedy “Private Lives,” director Maria Aitken’s places her strong personal stamp on the play’s complex and groundbreaking gender relationships between powerfully willful women and the more ambivalent men who inhabit their lives.

The company’s artistic director Michael Kahn personally recruited Ms. Aitken to direct the play he describes as an absolute masterpiece. “Even if you don’t do it very well, it actually works! And it needs a director who understands the complex gender relationships under the surface of it and what’s underneath,” says Mr. Kahn who describes Ms. Aitken as the foremost interpreter of Noel Coward. And we would have to agree that she fits the bill.

As an actress, Marie Aitken has starred in more of Coward’s leading lady roles than any other actress and her Anglo-Irish aristocratic roots made her the perfect choice to direct the final play of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s regular 2014 season.

Written by Coward in 1929 while he was recovering from the flu in Shanghai, “Private Lives” reflects the glamour and sophisticated lifestyles of his close circle of creative friends and collaborative actors. That included Gertrude Lawrence, upon whom he modeled his lead character, Amanda, inspired by a vision of Lawrence in a white dress on a Paris balcony.

Noel and Gertie later went on to stage play in London a few years later, resulting in a sold-out three month run.

Bianca Amato as Amanda and James Waterston as Elyot in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, directed by Maria Aitken. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Bianca Amato as Amanda and James Waterston as Elyot in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, directed by Maria Aitken. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The play opens in a blissful hotel in France where divorcées Elyot and Amanda are on honeymoon with their new spouses, all four unfortunately lodging at a picturesque French hotel. One evening, the former two halves are startled to discover each other on neighboring balconies. As they try to maintain a veneer of etiquette and respectability, old feelings rise up unexpectedly to make matters exceedingly complicated. And hilarious.

Bianca Amato (Amanda) and James Waterston (Elyot) exchange round after round of heavyweight jabs and haymakers from the hotel to a Paris get-a-way where they rekindle their undeniable chemistry. Amanda is stylish and demanding, and Elyot is superficial and entertaining (but talented) and a perfect match for her fiery, insecure temperament.

In this production, the first act, where they are first reunited on that balcony, flies by so quickly that the audience was taken off guard by the sudden appearance of the first of two ten minute intermissions in this lightning fast three act. The actual two-and-a-half hours of this play seemed like a one-hour prime time Roaring Twenties version of “Scandal.”

Coward’s play is a veritable boxing match of words and manners laced with subtext and glamour that in many ways transform this drama into the epitome of Noël Coward’s style and technique. “Private Lives” is ultimately a witty, sly and irreverent play about the people whose style overshadows their substance.

The Shakespeare Theatre’s production’s slick period look is pulled off brilliantly by scenic designer Allen Moyer. Costume designer Candice Donnelly provides the most stylish outfits for Coward’s characters, ranging from the dinner party formal look to the sexy boudoir scenes that particularly bring out Amanda’s dramatic sense of style.

Even though they were living in stylish Parisian sin, both characters felt married in the eyes of God. That is, until they were brought back to earth by an unexpected visit from their newly wedded ex-partners, ably portrayed by Autumn Hurlbert as Elyot’s ditsy current wife Sybil, and Jeremy Webb as Amanda’s entirely too boring husband Victor.

“Private Lives” rates a full four stars for its breathtaking pacing, spot-on acting, superb directing and, of course, that sophisticated scenery and costuming, all of which work together to transport you back to Paris in 1929. “Private Lives” continues at the Lansburgh Theatre through July 13.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Noël Coward’s “Private Lives” is at the Lansburgh Theatre through July 13. The Lansburgh is located in Washington’s Penn Quarter arts district just south of the Verizon Center.

For tickets and information, visit the Shakespeare Theatre’s website.

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