by Philip Potempa
January 15, 2010
The play Private Lives by Noel Coward is one of the great stage stories so often talked about, but seldom produced in the grandeur setting it deserves.
All the more reason Private Lives is such a perfect fit at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, where it opened Wednesday and runs through March 7.
Witty, wicked, funny and foppish, Private Lives is every bit the hit it was when it debuted on Broadway in 1931, prompting Hearst syndicated gossip columnist Walter Winchell to describe it as "something to go quite silly over."
And in the midst of winter's grip, audiences deserve some clever, silly fun.
It's no small wonder why this play has always been so popular with not only theater-goers, but also actors and actresses eager for any of the four plum roles.
Private Lives is a snappy three act (2-1/2-hour) romp following the escapades of Elyot, a high society divorce who is newly married to Sybil, who is seven years his junior. While honeymooning with his new bride, Elyot finds he happens to be staying at the same French hotel casino as his ex-wife Amanda, who is also honeymooning with her new husband, Victor. Add to this mix a full moon and a shared terrace and before long, the fighting starts and vases are being thrown.
Coward, himself, starred as Elyot in his own original production, opposite his friend Gertrude Lawrence, as Amanda, and Laurence Olivier, as Victor.
Later incarnations of Private Lives over the decades have featured everyone from Elizabeth Taylor, Maggie Smith, Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Collins and Elaine Stritch as Amanda. Richard Burton, of course, played the role of Elyot, opposite his then-wife Taylor. A 1931 film version featured actress Norma Shearer as Amanda and Robert Montgomery as Elyot.
This wonderful incarnation by Chicago Shakespeare Theater Associate Artistic Director Gary Griffin (who admits the first time he ever saw it performed was by Taylor and Burton at the Shubert Theater in Chicago) stars Robert Sella, as a deliciously prickly Elyot, opposite Tracy Michelle Arnold, as his acidic equal in ex-wife Amanda. Chaon Cross is Elyot's understandably paranoid new bride Sybil and Tim Campbell is the broad shouldered, thick-headed Victor, Amanda's new husband.
Thanks to the clever imagination of both director Griffin and scenic designer Neil Patel, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater stage is once again transformed for the pleasure and curiosity of the audience.
Audience seating has been added right onto the stage so Private Lives can be played in "theater-in-the-round" style, complete with the actors performing on a set which slowly revolves as subtly as the hands on a clock.
Also deserving mention are the beautifully created classical period wardrobes of all the characters, designed by Paul Tazewell.
And if audiences listen carefully, there's even a bit of Coward's Hoosier counterpart Cole Porter tossed in for good measure. Elyot plays a grand piano with Amanda vamping across it as they sing Porter's "Let's Do It," including a funny added lyric about gossip columnist Louella Parsons "not doing it."
This is priceless, elegant and sophisticated humor at its finest and not to be missed.
Explore Private Lives and learn more about the production.