Few things in this world are as effervescent as a well-written, well-cast, and well- executed romantic comedy. The tickle hits you somewhere between the funny bone and the ascending aorta, like the warming fizz and plip of A-plus champagne. Noel Coward's Private Lives—considered to be among his finest achievements—isn't likely to change your life in any deep, significant way, but if the romp is perfectly poured, it casts a momentary rosy hue on things, a giddy high that might last you the ride home.
Private Lives Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center, 206-443-2222, www.seattlerep.org. $10–$46. Various times, through April 1.
And Seattle Rep certainly gets this one right. Under the light but sure touch of director Gabriel Barre, the play is wonderfully diverting—so much so that you don't even begin to have any second thoughts about it until the morning after.
Coward's story about two honeymooning couples and their chaotic collision in the south of France circa 1920 is an amusing artifact of bourgeois sentimentality, a gin-and-tonic tribute to the good old days when a husband could smack his wife and get a yuk for it. Recall that in The Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant shoves Kate Hepburn through a door frame full force onto her ass, and she ends up marrying him—for the second time. And much like The Philadelphia Story—which hinges on the comic conundrum of a merely comfortable marriage being stopped by the last-minute intrusion of real, albeit rocky, love—Private Lives gets its zing from the unexpected reunion of exes Amanda and Elyot, each of whom has remarried as a sort of emotional corrective to the fiery, fractious relationship they shared.
The casting couldn't be better. Suzanne Bouchard and Rob Breckenridge are delightful as the lead couple, bringing to their roles the bumblebee repartee and throw-down sexuality that flourished in the romantic comedies of Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder. They are especially fine in the second act, after Elyot and Amanda decide to ditch their respective new spouses and hunker down in a hideaway love nest, drinking, sparring, and dancing to the scratchy tunes that spin on the gramophone. There's a dark, sultry wickedness to these scenes, a sexual humidity that plays well in the plush surroundings of Walt Spangler's pillow-and-pajama sets. Breckenridge and Bouchard are at their comic best here, as they depict the war of romantic attrition that threatens to do the couple in once again.
The only misstep is in the play's penultimate scene, the battle royal between Amanda and Elyot. The action is ingeniously and elaborately choreographed, with furniture teetering, falling, breaking and flying through the air, but it's tentatively performed, as though Breckenridge and Bouchard are too worried about hurting themselves or each other. A simpler, albeit less spectacular, setup would have been more effective.
Allen Fitzpatrick (last seen as Sweeney Todd) and Nikki Coble are excellent as Victor Prynne and Sibyl Chase, the jilted victims of a runaway tryst. Fitzpatrick plays his part as a noble clod, uncomprehending in his forced dignity, and he is very funny. Coble brings a nice flair to the oft-recycled role of the mousy, needy wife, and her hiccupy crying fits are annoyingly endearing. Lori Larsen is great in the minor role of Louise, the French maid whose quizzical looks and muttered asides cut right through the fancy mess she stumbles upon.
Yet, for all this good news, one can't help but be a little disappointed that the Rep at this time would choose such a safe, sure thing—an unchallenging and innocuous show that advances nothing but ticket sales. We have Hollywood for that. Sure, the Rep started the season with some dicey experiments (The King Stag, Purgatorio), but that's no reason to lose all sense of adventure. With such groundbreaking and risk-taking fringe outfits like Capitol Hill Arts Center and Theater Schmeater and Open Circle in town—companies regularly offering entertainment and challenges at half the ticket price (or less)—it may be time for the city's more established theaters to trade in the champagne for something with a little more punch.