Thursday, August 09, 2007

Private Lives (The SOB Review)

Private Lives (The SOB Review) - McGuire Proscenium Stage, Guthrie, Minneapolis, MN

*** (out of ****)


One thing you could never accuse Nöel Coward of is an innate fear of being ahead of his time.

The wickedly witty genius -- who easily shifted from writing to directing to composing to performing and producing -- could do it all with enormous style and panache throughout his 73 years. Nothing exemplifies his gloriously devilish sophistication quite like the effervescent Private Lives, which is currently being revived with class to spare at Minneapolis' Guthrie.

So vital and ahead of its time is this Coward work that it's been revived on Broadway six times since it first debuted in 1931 -- Coward not only directed that initial production, but starred in it alongside his longtime friend Gertrude Lawrence, as well as Laurence Olivier.

Thankfully, Guthrie selected precisely the right go-to director for the suitable dollop of verve and sauciness necessary to make this retelling a complete delight: Peter Rothstein. I've previously written about Rothstein being one of the Twin Cities' best and most inventive directors -- indeed, my very first post on Steve On Broadway was a review of one his productions. Rothstein is making a name for himself by frequently taking on difficult at best material and breathing new life into it. Yet, he's primarily done so in secondary or tertiary venues. Until now.

Apparently, the Guthrie has also taken appropriate notice of his immense talent and has lifted him to the big leagues. And rightly so. But this time around, he's taken a smart classic and made it sing.

It doesn't hurt that he has a completely game cast that includes Veanne Cox (Amanda), Tracey Maloney (Sibyl), Kris L. Nelson (Victor), Stephen Pelinski (Elyot) and Sally Wingert (Louise, a maid). Nor does it hurt that he's amassed top drawer creative talent, with Guthrie veterans John Arnone providing an exquisitely opulent set design (including a nice nod to Paris' Montmartre), Marcus Dilliard supplying a visually stunning lighting design (ranging from said Montmartre to the simple elegance of a moving elevator) and Reid Rejsa offering an outstanding sound design (from an unseen band playing to the amplified sound of a victrola to crickets chirping).

But all this window dressing alone would matter little if the direction doesn't flow. Like a fine brut popped just right, I'm pleased to report that Rothstein sets the right tone on a story that could easily be overplayed. Instead, Rothstein supplies a deft touch to an oh-so-elegant script.

While sometimes evocative of a quirky cross between a madcap episode of "I Love Lucy" and the legendary real-life love-hate-love affair of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Private Lives centers on two exes, Amanda and Elyot, who happen to meet again while on honeymoons for their second marriages. After their chance meeting, they discover that their visceral love -- or is it loathing? -- still smolders. With just the slightest blow, their flame comes back alive.

Cox and Pelinski are perfectly paired as the tempestuous, impetuous couple, who do the unthinkable in ditching their recently betrothed by heading for Paris. They pledge that if they ever begin to quarrel, one of them would offer a safe word so they'd both stop. Inevitably, they come to blows as no safe word can contain them.

With a simple roll of her eyes, Cox communicates more than many actors say with a spoken word. Pelinski offers the epitome of debonair charm, reminiscent of David Niven. Maloney, who last gave her Laura Wingfield a haunting luminescence in the Guthrie's The Glass Menagerie shines anew with a comic turn as Elyot's spurned wife Sibyl. As Amanda's new husband Victor, Nelson is earnest and sweet, yet surprisingly funny. And as the deadpan French-speaking maid, Wingert -- a Guthrie fave -- nearly steals the show as each little movement and sly, subtle look earns approving roars from the audience.

Here's to Rothstein & Company for uncorking a Private Lives that's as bubbly and light as a glass of champagne. I'll drink to that!

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Susannah (The SOB Review) (March 5, 2007)
The Glass Menagerie (The SOB Review) (February 16, 2007)
Carousel (The SOB Review) (February 9, 2007)
Gypsy (The SOB Review) (October 13, 2007)
Floyd Collins (The SOB Review) (April 24, 2006)

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