REVIEW: Private Lives (Chicago Shakespeare)

Noël Coward skewers conventional morality with droll finesse


Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents:


Private Lives


by Noël Coward
directed by Gary Griffin
thru March 7th (ticket info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

For delivering comic barbs with Cowardesque suave perfection, it’s tough to beat Robert Sella. One expects he could make even the most insipid rom-com crackle, zing and pop through sheer force of his timing and droll finesse. Noel Coward’s Private Lives – wherein Sella is currently stealing the show with his irresistible irreverent panache – is, of course, anything but insipid. It snaps from start to finish with wisdom and witticisms, many at the cost of so-called conventional morality. As Elyot Chase in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of Coward’s sparklingly well-made play, Sella seems born to wear the debonair character’s smoking jacket while tossing off withering repartee with the effortless brilliance of Beethoven practicing his scales. Almost.

private-lives-2 That sterling, razor-witted acumen with Coward’s inarguable wit isn’t quite enough. Yes, Sella can ignite an exquisite maelstrom of delicious comedy simply by flicking a napkin or aping a boxer’s stance. But in addition to humor, Private Lives rests on sexual chemistry, and there, director Gary Griffin’s staging – and Sella – fall short.

When Elyot and his ex-wife Amanda Prynne meet cute whilst on their respective honeymoons to new spouses, the attraction between former spouses is so white-hot that they abandon their new partners and flee for Amanda’s Parisian flat for a solid week of wall-to-wall sex. Or at least, it should be white-hot. Here, Elyot and Amanda (Tracy Michelle Arnold, worldly, brittle and dry as a perfectly aged Savignon Blanc) are more intellectual than sexual soul mates. Quip for quip, Amanda and her ex- are as perfectly matched as Shakespeare’s Kate and Petruchio or Albee’s George and Martha. Watching them spar is a joy. Watching them get busy atop a sleek grand piano? Not so much.

As for Sybil Chase and Victor Prynne – the abandoned half of the two newlywed couples – they’re utterly winning in their indignant conventionality. As the new Mrs. Chase, Chaon Cross is an ingénue with delicate yet unmistakable shadings of a harpy in-training – you just know she’s going to turn into her battle-ax mother by the time she hits 40. And as Amanda’s new husband Victor Prynne, Tim Campbell is a pitch-perfect righteous blockhead, a slab of ham and sensible haircut of a man, all tiresome chivalry and hail-fellow-well-met. He’s the opposite of Sella’s Elyot, physically, morally and intellectually, and the results – both visually and verbally – are hilarious.

private-lives-3 private-lives-4

Not so effective is the intermittently and slowly rotating turntable that Griffin employs to give the audience a sense of voyeurism. While we do get to see the Prynne/Chase shenanigans from every angle, that rotation is a distraction – particularly when it starts up after being still for a while. It can be difficult to focus on the dialogue and characters when suddenly the set starts spinning on its axis, no matter how leisurely. Furthermore, the in-the-round staging means everyone in the audience spends at least some time staring at the backs of heads or (during scenes involving people prone on that piano or the purple velvet fainting couch) the soles of feet. It’s frustrating,

All that said, Private Lives is worthy of its ticket price. It’s Sella’s show, and chemistry or no, he nails the subversive genius of Coward’s wit. Factor in Paul Tazewell’s sleek 1930s costume design (the hats alone are to die for) and you’ve got a production that’s sumptuously handsome. As well as extremely funny.


Rating: ★★★


Private Lives continues through March 7 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets are $55, $68, $75. For more information, call 312/595-5600 or go to

Below: First rehearsal – the director talks about staging Private Lives in-the-round

Also, read an interview with director Gary Griffin


All pictures and bios below courtesy of Chicago Shakes’ website.


Robert Sella (Elyot Chase) returns to Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where he appeared as Salieri in Amadeus. Broadway credits include: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Hilton Theatre); Cabaret (Studio 54); Side Man (Roundabout and Golden Theatre); and My Fair Lady (Virginia Theatre). Off Broadway credits include: Stuff Happens, Kit Marlowe (Public Theater); Five by Tenn (Manhattan Theatre Club); Boys and Girls (Playwrights Horizons at the Duke); Home of the Brave (Jewish Repertory Theatre); and as Prior in the national tour of Angels in America. Regional credits include: Chick, The Great Osram (Hartford Stage); Safe in Hell (South Coast Repertory); Don Carlos, Mourning Becomes Electra (Shakespeare Theatre Company); and The Night Governess (McCarter Theatre). Film credits include: Sleepy Hollow, The Astronaut’s Wife and Diary of a City Priest. Television credits include: Gossip Girl, Law & Order and Third Watch. Mr. Sella is a graduate of the Juilliard School.

Chaon Cross (Sybil Chase) returns to Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where her credits include: Imogen in Cymbeline, Cressida in Troilus and Cressida, Emilia in The Two Noble Kinsmen and Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew. Other Chicago credits include: Yelena in Uncle Vanya, Laura in The Glass Menagerie, Scapin, The Romance Cycle, Phèdre (Court Theatre); Roxanne in Cyrano (Court Theatre and Redmoon Theater); Sarah in Grace (Northlight Theatre); Anya in The Cherry Orchard (Steppenwolf Theatre) and Lady Windermere in Lady Windermere’s Fan (Milwaukee Repertory). She has also appeared in productions with Frump Tucker Theatre, Shattered Globe Theatre, TimeLine Theatre, Theater at the Center, First Folio Shakespeare Festival, and Theatre-Hikes. Before moving to Chicago, Ms. Cross toured the US and Canada for two years with American Shakespeare Center.

Tim Campbell (Victor Prynne) makes his Chicago Shakespeare Theater debut. Regional credits include: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Soulpepper); Moliere (Tarragon Theatre); Glory Days (Theatre Aquarius); Stones in His Pockets (Globe Theatre); The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Birdland Theatre); Macbeth (ACT); Salt-Water Moon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Resurgence Theatre); Romeo and Juliet, The Melville Boys (Sudbury Theatre Centre.); Platinum Travel Club (Theatre Passe Muraille); Othello (Lovers & Madmen) and nineteen productions over six seasons at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (2003 ‘Dora Mavor Moore’ Guthrie Award). Television credits include: Murdoch Mysteries (Shaftesbury/CityTV); The Summit (CBC); Anne: A New Beginning (PBS); Kevin Hill (CBS); and Cheater’s Club (Lifetime). Film credits include Killshot (Weinstein Co.) and Hollywoodland (Focus Features).

Tracy Michelle Arnold (Amanda Prynne) makes her Chicago Shakespeare Theater debut. Chicago credits include: As You Like It (Writers’ Theatre); The Chalk Garden, Red Herring, Lady Windermere’s Fan (Northlight Theatre); Lady Madeline (Steppenwolf Theatre) and Top Girls (Remy Bumppo Theatre). Regional credits include: A Christmas Carol (Milwaukee Repertory); String of Pearls (Renaissance Theaterworks); A Lesson from Aloes (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre); The Laramie Project, As Bees in Honey Drown, What Corbin Knew (Madison Repertory Theatre); and Hay Fever, Old Times, Ah, Wilderness!, The Night of the Iguana, Much Ado About Nothing, Misalliance, Romeo and Juliet, The Matchmaker, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Playboy of the Western World, The Cherry Orchard, Hamlet, Pygmalion, Antony and Cleopatra, Love’s Labor’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Phaedre, Pericles and King Lear (American Players Theatre).

Wendy Robie (Louise) returns to Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where she appeared in Richard III, Hamlet and Hecuba. Other Chicago credits include: Trojan Women (Goodman Theatre); Mother Courage (Steppenwolf Theatre Company); The Long Christmas Ride Home, The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Omnium Gatherum, Far Away, Entertaining Mr. Sloane (Next Theatre); A Delicate Balance (Remy Bumppo Theatre); and Benefactors (Writers’ Theatre). Regional credits include: Brian Bedford’s King Lear (Stratford Shakespeare Festival); Rembrandt’s Gift (Madison Repertory Theatre); Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Phoenix Theatre); Ghost in the Machine (South Coast Repertory); and Les Liasons Dangereuses and The Little Foxes (Portland Repertory Theatre). Film credits include Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (Universal). Television credits include two seasons as Nadine on Twin Peaks (ABC). She is the recipient of an L.A. Dramalogue Award (Lead Actress), and an After Dark Award for Outstanding Season in 2005.



Gary Griffin (Director/Associate Artistic Director) in his tenure at Chicago Shakespeare Theater has directed Amadeus, Passion, A Flea in Her Ear, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George, Pacific Overtures, The Herbal Bed, Short Shakespeare! A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Short Shakespeare! Romeo and Juliet. Broadway directing credits include The Color Purple (11 Tony Nominations including Best Musical) and The Apple Tree (Tony Nomination for Best Musical Revival). Off Broadway credits include: Saved (Playwrights Horizons); The Apple Tree, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Pardon My English, The New Moon (Encores); and Beautiful Thing (Cherry Lane Theatre). Tour credits include the national tour of The Color Purple. London credits include Pacific Overtures at the Donmar Warehouse (Olivier Award for Outstanding Musical Production and Olivier Award nomination for Best Director). Regional credits include work with: The Old Globe, McCarter Theatre, Alliance Theatre, Signature Theatre and Hartford Stage. His Chicago credits with Court Theatre, Northlight Theatre, Apple Tree Theatre, Writers’ Theatre, The Marriott Theatre, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Pegasus Players and Famous Door Theatre have earned him eight Joseph Jefferson Awards for directing. This year Mr. Griffin made his directing debut at Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where he gained critical acclaim for West Side Story, as well as at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he directed The Merry Widow and will return in the 2010-2011 season with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.

Noel Coward (Playwright) was born in 1899 in Teddington, South London. Coward made his professional stage debut at the age of 11, saw his first play produced at 17, and reached London’s West End as both writer and actor at the age of 20. Coward gained critical acclaim and personal celebrity in 1924 with the sensation caused by his play The Vortex. Over the next two decades he achieved fame through a string of revues, songs and plays, including some that have entered the standard repertory—Hay Fever (1925), Fallen Angels (1925), Private Lives (1930), Design for Living (1933), Tonight at 8:30 (1936), Blithe Spirit (1941) and Present Laughter (1943). He was also the screenwriter on a number of movies, most notably Brief Encounter and Best Picture Academy Award-winner In Which We Serve. Coward was knighted in 1970, received a Tony Award for distinguished achievement in the theater in 1971, and died at his home in Bermuda in 1973.

Neil Patel (Scenic Designer) returns to Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where his credits include Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure. Broadway credits include: [title of show], Oleanna, Sideman, Ring of Fire and ‘Night Mother. Off-Broadway credits include work with: Zipper, Variety Arts Theater, Second Stage, MCC Theater, Roundabout Theatre Company, MTC, Vineyard Theater, New York Theater Workshop, Playwrights Horizons, New York Shakespeare Festival. Other credits include work at the Guthrie Theater, Steppenwolf Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, McCarter Theatre, Alley Theatre, Long Wharf Theatre, Mark Taper Forum and work with Anne Bogart and the SITI Company of which he is a member. Opera credits include work at the New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Minnesota Opera, Opera Theater of St. Louis, and Nikikai Opera in Tokyo. Other credits include The Treatment (TV; production design), and Shadowland (Pilobolus Dance). He is the recipient of a Helen Hayes Award, EDDY Awards, Drama Desk Nominations, and two OBIE awards for sustained excellence.

Paul Tazewell (Costume Design) returns to Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Broadway credits include: Memphis, Guys and Dolls, The Color Purple, Hot Feet, In The Heights, Caroline, or Change, A Raisin in the Sun, Drowning Crow, Def Poetry Jam, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, Fascinating Rhythm, On the Town, and Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk. Off Broadway credits include: Ruined, The Wiz, Purlie, Lil’ Abner, Flesh and Blood, Once Around the City, and Dinah Was. Mr. Tazewell has designed extensively across the country and internationally for theater, opera, dance, and film. He has been nominated for the Tony Award three times (In the Heights, The Color Purple, and Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk), has received four Helen Hayes Awards, two AUDELCO Awards, both the Princess Grace Fellowship and Princess Grace Statue Award, and numerous other regional awards for his work.

Robert Wierzel (Lighting Designer) returns to Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where his credits include: Richard III, Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, Troilus and Cressida, The Merchant of Venice, King John, The Moliere Comedies, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Broadway credits include the new musical Fela! directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones and David Copperfield’s Dreams and Nightmares. Other New York Credits include productions at Roundabout Theatre Company, New York Shakespeare Festival and Signature Theatre Company. Regional credits include productions with: Arena Stage, The Shakespeare Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory, Hartford Stage, Long Wharf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, The Guthrie Theater, Mark Taper Forum, and Berkeley Repertory, among many others. Opera credits include: Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Opera Theatre and opera companies across North America, Europe, and Asia. Mr. Wierzel holds an MFA from the Yale School of Drama and serves on the faculty at NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (Sound Designers) return to Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Their Broadway credits include: music, composition and sound for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Speed of Darkness; music for My Thing of Love; and sound for Superior Donuts, reasons to be pretty, A Year with Frog and Toad, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Hollywood Arms, King Hedley II, Buried Child, The Song of Jacob Zulu and The Grapes of Wrath. Off Broadway credits include: music or sound for Ruined, After Ashley, Boy Gets Girl, Red, Space, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Jitney and Marvin’s Room. They have created music and sound for theaters throughout America, often with the Goodman Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre Company, as well as internationally with The Comedy Theatre (London’s West End), The Barbican Center, National Theatre (Great Britain), The Cameri Theatre (Tel Aviv), The Subaru Acting Company (Japan) and festivals in Toronto, Dublin, Galway, Perth and Sydney.

Melissa Veal (Wig and Makeup Designer) has designed wigs and makeup at Chicago Shakespeare for over 35 productions, including: Richard III, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Amadeus, The Comedy of Errors, Othello, Passion, Troilus and Cressida, The Three Musketeers, Hamlet, A Flea in Her Ear, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 (at CST and on tour to Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon), Much Ado About Nothing, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Molière Comedies, A Little Night Music, Rose Rage: Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 (at CST and The Duke on 42nd Street), The Taming of the Shrew, and as wig supervisor for The School for Scandal. She worked with the Stratford Festival for 10 seasons, where she received four Tyrone Guthrie Awards, including the Jack Hutt Humanitarian Award. Other Canadian credits include work with Canadian Stage Company, Tarragon Theatre, Mirvish Productions and The Grand Theatre in London, Ontario. Ms. Veal was the recipient of the 2007 Hurkes Award for Artisans and Technicians.

Chuck Coyl (Fight Director) makes his Chicago Shakespeare Theatre debut. Chicago credits include Fight Direction for: August: Osage County, Superior Donuts and The Crucible (Steppenwolf Theatre); Gas For Less and Magnolia (Goodman Theatre); and Porgy and Bess, Carmen and Tosca (Lyric Opera of Chicago). He recently completed work as a stunt player on the feature film Eyeborgs. He has been a stunt coordinator for television episodes of Moments in Time (History Channel) and True Crime Authors (Discovery Channel).

Jill Walmsley Zager (Dialect Coach) makes her Chicago Shakespeare Theater debut. Chicago credits include: My Fair Lady, Light in the Piazza, Bowery Boys, Little Women, A Christmas Carol (Marriott Theatre); A World Set Free (Steppenwolf Theatre); Grand Hotel (Drury Lane Water Tower); and Sign of the Four (Apple Tree Theatre). Regional credits include: HMS Pinafore, Room Service, On Golden Pond (Utah Shakespearean Festival); and Talley’s Folly (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre). Film coaching credits include: The Game of Their Lives (Crusader); and Life Lottery (Door 44). A graduate of the Central School of Speech and Drama (London) and Northwestern University Ms. Zager is currently the co-Head of Voice and Dialects and Company coach at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.

3 Responses

  1. I respectfully disagree with both of your major criticisms.

    First of all, I thought that there was no trouble with the sexual tension between Elyot and Amanda. Their pleasure comes from their verbal sparring. It’s kind of the point that they’re not sexually compatible or at least right now they’re not. One of the “Sollocks” moments is a result of Amanda refusing Elyot’s sexual advances because it was “too soon after dinner”. I don’t think the characters are in sexual bliss at all, so I had no problems with the actors portraying that. In my opinion, the piano/singing scene was one of the most romantic and delightful moments I’ve seen on stage in a long time. I did just see the production last night, so maybe they’ve fallen more in love since the review was written.

    I also loved the revolving stage. I’ve been to Chicago Shakes before and I dislike the feeling of being pulled away from the action in such a grand space. But here was an intimate layout that I felt really reinforced the voyeurism of peering into these ‘private lives’ (a combination of my own observation and Gary Griffin’s thoughts). With ‘in the round’, you’re never going to see everyone’s face all the time, that’s a given. I did find it a tad awkward to crane my neck back and forth, but it was because I was so engrossed with the play, not that I wanted get my money’s worth. With proscenium, you sacrifice intimacy for sight lines. With the round, you sacrifice perfect sightlines for the up close and personal involvement. When the set began revolving, I barely noticed because the actors never wavered. It also achieved kind of a film quality, as if panning around the table during the deliciously uncomfortable breakfast scene.

    My only real criticism was the fight scene, I was surprised that wasn’t mentioned in the review. Half-hearted, awkward. I guess they were going for stylized Tom and Jerry?

    All in all, I loved this production so much.

  2. You know, I can find a lot of interesting information in your posts, and I think all do. But, it’s a pity that “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

  3. […] acclaimed CST Olivier and Jeff Award-winning Sondheim musicals and productions of Private Lives (review ★★★) and […]

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