REVIEW: Private Lives (Chicago Shakespeare)

Noël Coward skewers conventional morality with droll finesse

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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.

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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 www.chicagoshakes.com

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

Also, read an interview with director Gary Griffin

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Chicago Theater – Best of 2008 (Chicago Sun-Times)

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 Hedy Weiss, theater-critic extraordinaire for the Chicago Sun-Times, has put together an excellent list of her 10 favorite plays of 2008.  Along with the list, Hedy notes the wonderful year Chicago theater has had on the national stage:

…this was the year that Steppenwolf Theatre picked up five Tony Awards for its Chicago-bred Broadway production of Tracy Letts‘ “August: Osage County” before the cast crossed the pond to remount the show at London’s National Theatre, and when the Chicago Shakespeare Theater was feted with the “Best Regional Theater” Tony.

Continuing:

But that was just the beginning. Next Theatre‘s production of the new musical “Adding Machine,” was hailed in its Off Broadway incarnation, with director David Cromer racking up plaudits for his work on that show, as well as for his revelatory revivals of “Our Town” (at the Hypocrites) and “Picnic” (at Writers’ Theatre). Profiles championed the work of incendiary playwright Neil LaBute to grand effect. Remy Bumppo earned laughs with its tale of financial chicanery in a revival of an Edwardian classic, “The Voysey Inheritance.” And director Sean Graney experimented boldy with productions of “The Threepenny Opera” and Marlowe‘s “Edward II.”

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Now here are Hedy Weiss’s favorite productions in 2008:

 

1. Caroline or Change  (Court Theatre)
by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori
Standouts: Charles Newell (director), Doug Peck (musical director); performances: Malcolm Durning, E.Faye Butler
     
2. Ruined  (Goodman Theatre)
by Lynn Nottage
Weiss comments: Worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, the play will soon move to New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club.
 
     
3. Gatz  (Elevator Repair Service Theatre)
by John Collins
 
     
4. Our Town  (The Hypocrites)
by Thornton Wilder
Standouts: David Cromer (director)
 
     
5. Requiem for a Heavyweight  (Shattered Globe)
by Rod Serling
Standouts: Lou Contey (director)
 
     
6. Amadeus  (Chicago Shakespeare)
by Peter Schaffer
Standouts: Gary Griffin (director), Daniel Ostling (set designer); performances: Robert Sella, Robbi Collier Sublett, Elizabeth Ledo, Lance Baker
 
     
7. As You Like It  (Writers’ Theatre)
by William Shakespeare
Standouts: William Brown (director), Performance: Larry Yando
 
     
8. Drowsy Chaperone  (Cadillac Palace Theater)
by Laura Wade
Standouts: Casey Nicholaw (director)
 
     
9. Around the World in 80 Days  (Lookingglass)
Standouts: Laura Eason (adaptor/director); Performances: Philip R. Smith, Kevin Douglas, Joe Dempsey, Ravi Batista, Anish Jethmalani, Ericka Ratcliff, Nick Sandys and Rom Barkhordar
 
     
10. Columbinus  (Raven Theatre)
by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli
Standouts: Greg Kolack (director); Performances: Matthew Klingler and Jamie Abelson
 

To see the Hedy Weiss’s complete description and thoughts on her favorite plays, click here.