Private Lives at Seattle Repertory Theatre

A review by Kathy Williams

Seattle Rep, founded in 1963, has achieved renown for quality productions, receiving the 1990 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre.  Noël Coward’s Private Lives played to delighted Seattle audiences from March 2 – April 1, 2006.  NCS member Kathy Williams had the pleasure of attending the performance on March 29th.

Pre-performance, to the gratifying strains of ‘Mrs Worthington’, ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’, and other Coward standards (primarily recordings of The Master himself singing), the audience meandered around the lobby, sipping cocktails and clustering in front of floor-to-ceiling banners featuring large photographs of Coward. Especially nice were photos of the young Noël as Prince Mussel in The Goldfish; a debonaire pair of portraits of Coward and Graham Payn; Coward in khaki, performing for troops in WWII; and a relaxed, retired Sir Noël in Jamaica. The biographical text on the banners presented a brief but generally accurate overview of Coward’s life and work.

(L-R) Allen Fitzpatrick as Victor and Suzanne Bouchard as Amanda.
Photo © 2006 by Chris Bennion.

On with the show.  Early in Act I Amanda says, “I think very few people are normal really, deep down in their private lives.” Accentuating the characters’ distance from “normal”, Director Gabriel Barre sustains a refreshingly brisk pace throughout the play and spikes Amanda and Elyot’s decline and fall—from their brief attempt at normalcy (honeymoons in the south of France) to the depths of their private lives (donnybrooks in Paris). Although the audience responded with loudest laughter and applause to Amanda’s quip, “It doesn’t suit men for women to be promiscuous…”, kudos go to director Barre and the actors for eliciting nearly as much laughter from such witty rejoinders as “Yes.”

(L-R) Suzanne Bouchard as Amanda and Rob Breckenridge as Elyot.
Photo © 2006 by Chris Bennion.

The attractive Rob Breckenridge as Elyot and glamorous Suzanne Bouchard as Amanda generate superabundant heat. Sparks fly from the moment they first re-connect on the terrace. Bouchard’s initial lilting rendition of ‘Someday I’ll Find You’ ends with a scratchy, scrappy “Again!”, providing Bouchard with an opening gambit that foreshadows her later penchant for ear biting, eye gouging, and record shattering.  In contrast, when she appears in her white evening dress (designed by Elizabeth Hope Clancy with strong genuflection to Molyneux), her magnetism is irresistible. Half Coward, half Antonio Banderas, Breckenridge’s suave, athletic Elyot leaps across the set (a la Zorro) to re-woo and re-win Amanda, pinning her against the terrace wall and (per Coward’s stage directions) kissing her violently. Who wouldn’t be breathless with such steamy stuff? 

(L-R) Suzanne Bouchard as Amanda and Rob Breckenridge as Elyot.
Photo © 2006 by Chris Bennion.

Transported to Paris, Amanda and Elyot ricochet between lust and rage.  In soigné lounging clothes, they play records and dance, first a torrid tango to Django Reinhardt’s gypsy guitar (apparently Zigeuner was not available), then a slinky waltz to “Someday I’ll Find You”.  In the quiet eye of their emotional storm, they loll on the floor, speaking of God and the afterlife. Elyot sums up: “Death’s very laughable, such a cunning little mystery. All done with mirrors.” Under Barre’s direction, near-death experiences for Elyot and Amanda—and their mirrors, Victor and Sybil—are all laughable. Bickering escalates to throttling, which could unnerve the audience except for the jolly background music and comic tone, informing us that it’s not serious, really. One false note: having squandered the breaking of gramophone records at the start of the fight, Barre resorts to low comedy—Amanda pulls Elyot’s pyjamas down to his knees in the heat of their battle, revealing his naked bottom to the audience. Elyot screens the “Full Monty” with a quickly scooped up footstool as he stumbles around the stage in a most un-Cowardly fashion (Noises Off comes to mind.)

(L-R) Rob Breckenridge as Elyot and Lori Larsen as Louise.
Photo © 2006 by Chris Bennion.

Allen Fitzpatrick as Victor and Nikki Coble as Sibyl are almost too likeable and attractive—at first. Fortunately, they soon worm their way out of our hearts. Fitzpatrick captures Victor’s tweedy tone of stubborn, boring stodginess, and Coble’s lovely Sibyl shrieks and sobs and snivels with enough feckless obstinacy to drive anyone mad. Lori Larsen is an effectively comic Louise, dismissing the post-fight mess with a Gallic shrug: clearly, she’s seen it all before.

(L-R) Nikki Coble as Sibyl and Rob Breckenridge as Elyot.
Photo © 2006 by Chris Bennion

Private Lives
played at the Bagley Wright Theatre, the largest of Seattle Rep’s three stages, with ampleroom onstage for an enormous crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling of Amanda’s Parisian flat. Both of Walt Spangler’s opulent sets glowed and glittered, setting a swanky tone. Costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy were stylish and gorgeous.

Items of interest from the program: 1) an illustrated three-page biography of Noël Coward (by Christine Sumption, Director of Dramaturgy at Seattle Rep) with pertinent quotes (e.g., Coward’s insistent vision of Gertie in a white Molyneux dress); and 2) Seattle Rep offered (their caps and bold letters)

SPECIAL THANKS, presumably for answers to many questions, to “Stephen Marshall, Noël Coward Society”.

Amanda Prynne ...................................Suzanne Bouchard
Elyot Chase .........................................Rob Breckenridge
Victor Prynne .......................................Allen Fitzpatrick
Sibyl Chase .........................................Nikki Coble
Louise .................................................Lori Larsen
Directed by .........................................Gabriel Barre
Scenic Designer ...................................Walt Spangler
Costume Designer ................................Elizabeth Hope Clancy
Lobby display text ...............................Credit to, biographical sketch by John Kenrick

A few less-than-glowing comments, nit-picking some details.

Nit number one: Dialect. Amanda, Elyot, and Victor all spoke with a most peculiar affectation, sounding like the cast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in drag, playing women who aspire to gentility by running a tea shop in Cheltenham. Words such as Amanda, thank, and flat became “Amenda”, “thenk”, and “flet”.  A kindly Englishwoman sitting near me offered the opinion that perhaps they were trying to sound like film stars from the 1920’s or Her Majesty, the Queen. Either the dialect coach, Judith Shahn, made an unfathomable choice, or the director had some perverse auditory twist in mind (Python-esque upper-class Twits?)  Sybil, bless her, spoke like a normal (if extremely annoying) person; Nikki Cobble has the advantage of having lived and performed in London.

Nit number two: Upstaged by the Set. The magnificent sets were a little too magnificent; they played too strong of a role, upstaging the performers at times. Instead of one large bisected terrace for Act I, Walt Spangler designed a hotel front with two balconies hanging above and on either side of the top of a giant neon sign, announcing “HOT”— in case anyone missed the point that Amanda and Elyot were enflamed with passion.  Instead of the specified screening row of lime trees, there were a couple of dwarf orange trees in large pots, parked in distant corners of each balcony. Dressed in his tuxedo and with drinks in hand, Elyot had to climb over his balcony’s railing, leap across a chasm to stand of the top of the neon sign, then on to the second balcony with another climb over a second railing to be able to hand a cocktail to Amanda. More Chaplain than Coward, I’m afraid.

In Acts II and III, the enormous crystal chandelier (leftover from Phantom of the Opera?) and its companion crystal sconces were, sad to say, not the most overwhelming element in Amanda’s Parisian flat, which was an early Art Deco wonder, with ruby-red walls, oversized floor pillows, a low Japanese table with the remains of what looked like a sushi lunch (complete with chopsticks used for a walrus-tusk sight gag), a gramophone with a brass horn (missing only Little Nipper listening to His Master’s Voice—possibly a stretched metaphor about Coward, but I think not),  a collapsing baby grand piano, and two sets of tall shelves containing enormous art glass (very, very, very early Dale Chihuly).  The destruction of all this grandeur in the fight scene brought to mind a Northwest Coast Kwakiutl Indian tradition: the Potlatch, in which much of the point was to destroy expensive stuff to show just how rich you were. After the fight, the stage was a mess and stayed a mess; the actors tip-toed around or tripped over the debris, forcing too much attention to it.

Nit number three: Gratuitous dialogue. Words not written by Coward crept in: Louise’s “shrill cry” at her first entrance was most distinctly, “Merde!”, and Elyot and Amanda muttered a bit to each other during their fights, ad libbing between their lines.
End of finger wagging.

Kathy Williams

© The Noël Coward Society 2005

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