Though it suffers pacing difficulties in its third act, Theatre Tulsa's Private Lives by Noel Coward successfully lampoons stiff British etiquette and the romantic relationships that such manners beget.
Two couples have gone on their honeymoons. Coincidentally, the husband of one couple and the wife of the other were once married to each other, and when they realize they have booked adjoining hotel rooms, the farcical fun begins.
Because Private Lives is a farce, one must prepare for certain conventions. If someone opens a door and doesn't see the person standing behind it because they are so preoccupied with something else, then we can rest assured we're in the world of farce. Even so, actors in a farce must devote themselves to their characters' intentions with even more zeal than actors in a mere comedy.
The first test these actors face is the double-take that Amanda (Rebekah Peddy) and Elyot (Bryan Thompson) exchange on their adjoining balcony. The two old flames survey the ocean below their hotel rooms, notice each other, nod politely, return their gazes to the water--then realize exactly who they just saw. Both Peddy and Thompson pull the moment off without a hitch, and from there, we're off to the races.
Peddy commands attention as the sultry, snide Amanda. Noel Coward's comedies call for a specific approach, a dry, nasal, British flippancy, and she nails the style as if she has grown up watching Coward's plays.
Her attention to detail is invigorating. For instance, costume designer Mary Perisho has dressed Amanda in an elegant black evening gown that displays her cleavage. It is not that feature that draws the eye, however, but her hands. Perisho has also given Amanda long, sleek evening gloves, and through them Peddy has found a rich gesture life for her character. After the first act, the gloves come off (literally and figuratively) and she moves into a billowing silk nightgown in the second act and a brisk grey traveling outfit in the third. Too many actors wear their costumes as if they're someone else's clothes, but in each of these costumes, Peddy is at ease.
She owns her relationship with Elyot with the same comfort. The two actors compliment each other well. They touch as if they've known each other for years, and speak with familiarity. They find each other absolutely droll. Even so, Thompson makes a few stylistic choices that seem out of step with his acting partner. He favors broad speech, trumpeting his lines, which works at some times but at others makes him seem more suited to Shaw than Coward. At other times he resembles Hugh Laurie's interpretation of Bertie Wooster. Just before the third act, Thompson eases into the Coward style.
That dryness worked much better than his previous choices.
Victor (Jacob Williams) and Sybil (Nicole Cates) are two-dimensional foils to the main characters. Coward himself acknowledged that they are "ninepins... only there at all in order to be repeatedly knocked down and stood up again."
That said, director Frank Gallagher should have pushed the contrast farther. Williams's Victor is catty and condescending. These elements are in the text, undeniably, but should remain hidden under his stiff British manners. We should only be allowed to see the petty clod underneath when his mask slips. Occasional glimpses of an improperly behaved proper gentleman would contrast his two sides more sharply. This would in turn make him a better foil to Amanda and Elyot who themselves are catty and condescending, but unlike Victor, take pride in that fact.
Because Williams and Gallagher have chosen to downplay Victor's sense of propriety, we miss (among other effects) a very fun joke at the end of the first act. Victor and Sybil, their new spouses having, unbeknownst to them, run off together, stand side by side on the balcony, making awkward, idle conversation as they wait for their lovers to reappear. Victor, having ordered cocktails for Amanda, offers one to Sybil.
The comedic reasoning for this becomes clear if Victor's dominant trait is his politeness: good manners force him to offer a drink to a strange woman on his own wedding night at the same time as another man is making love to his wife. Furthermore, if he plays the good-natured cuckold now, he looks the even greater fool when he refuses to fight Elyot later in the play.
Williams makes a few other confusing choices, namely his discomfort with touching Amanda. The intended effect of the choice is unclear. It is in the text that Amanda frightens him, true, but only at times. A stronger choice would be wholehearted devotion to his new wife, expressed physically through confident caresses, punctuated by moments of insecurity.
Cates is almost unbearably shrill as Sybil, which is exactly what the script calls for. Victor must spend a considerable amount of time traveling with Sybil between the first and second acts, after which most people would have either lost their temper with her or have suppressed a lot of rage. Victor, on the other hand, seemed mildly irritated by her.
Again, it is true that these are two-dimensional characters to begin with, but there is still some depth to Victor that has yet to be discovered by this company.
In the end, these criticisms would add up to nothing if it weren't for the pacing issues they compound during the final act. At that point in the play the audience assumes the plot has resolved, and it is left waiting for a conclusion that does not come. Instead Victor and Sybil build to a final explosive argument, which could be very funny if it weren't for the problems outlined above.
Luckily we almost always have Peddy onstage. Any beats dropped, steps mistimed, choices botched are hers to pick up and fix. Her interaction with the other actors is always engaging, and often hilarious. She has the talent and the confidence to smooth over this production's rough edges.
Private Lives runs February 28 through March 1 in the Liddy Doenges Theatre of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St. Showtimes are 8pm, and tickets are $17.50. For more, go to www.tulspac.com.
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