Opinion: Louche Charm in Quogue

Opinion: Louche Charm in Quogue

Fri, 05/31/2019 - 22:13
Noel Coward at Hampton Theatre Company
Andrew Botsford and Rosemary Cline in a scene from the Hampton Theatre Company’s “Private Lives”

Noel Coward’s 1930 play is a tricky one. Written in three feverish days in a Shanghai hotel while Coward was bedridden with the flu, “Private Lives” has a sparky energy that’s laced with cruelty. Of course, it is very funny, full of champagne effervescence, cut-glass vowels, and stylish swagger. The characters hurl witty dialogue at each other while parading around in dinner jackets and sequined frocks.

Coward’s text challenges, demanding volatility of its actors and careening between extremes of affection and aggression. At other moments, it idles around confusion, hope, despair, and utter joy. Artfully constructed, “Private Lives” is meant to be both delicious and devastating. 

For any director, this can be treacherous terrain. The action must look and feel effortless, nimbly toeing the line between comedy and savagery. Overstress either, and the play becomes parodic. The script demands pin-sharp precision and immaculate timing, some sizzling passion, and at least an intimation of real pain.

At Friday’s performance, George Loizides’s revival in Quogue, playing through June 9, never quite seemed to find its comic rhythm or build real momentum. While the four veteran Hampton Theatre Company actors — Andrew Botsford, Rosemary Cline, Matthew Conlon, and Rebecca Edana (plus Diana Marbury, who singlehandedly offers a full ticket’s worth of laughs as a scornful French maid) — delivered a knockabout farce involving marital fisticuffs in the second half of the play, the rest of the show was too light and insubstantial, and woefully short of bite, fizz, or savage sexiness. 

It must be said, however, that almost any play defies instant analysis, that even the best production in the world can be a little shaky at first. And this is a highly experienced theater company that rarely disappoints. So I have no doubt that this rendition will only get better over the next nine shows, with performances becoming tighter and more piquant. The brilliant display of style onstage, thanks to Teresa Lebrun’s costumes and set design by Sean Marbury, will undoubtedly be matched by substance as the run continues. Let’s just say Friday’s show wasn’t in its final form yet.

“Private Lives” opens with a fabulous setup: Amanda (Ms. Cline) and Elyot (Mr. Botsford), divorced Jazz Age sophisticates who are each honeymooning with their respective second spouses — the decent but awfully dull Victor (Mr. Conlon) and the pinkly pretty Sybil (Ms. Edana) — collide on the terrace of adjacent hotel rooms in Deauville, in the South of France. Almost immediately, Amanda and Elyot’s old desires are rekindled, and a combustible reunion, for better and for worse, becomes inevitable. It also becomes clear that they are both hopelessly mismatched in their second marriages.

Ms. Edana as Sybil, Elyot’s new wife, delivers the sharpest performance in Quogue as a warbling, squeak­ing, simpering, hyperventilating woman — the old-fashioned kind, the kind George Bernard Shaw once mockingly called “womanly women.” Ms. Edana is funny and confident, and her presence commands attention. She is also the only one of the four who consistently holds her upper-crusty English accent (but I’m from England, so perhaps I was the only one who noticed that Amanda and Elyot pronounced “nasty” the American way and “dance” the English way). 

Ms. Cline, as the ex-wife, nails the snooty disdain and superciliousness, but offers not nearly enough sensuality or prickly wit. Most startlingly obvious is the absence of heat between Ms. Cline and Mr. Botsford. There is no erotic bloom here, or enough urgency — none of that nihilistic desperation, or the destructive power of love that bubbles beneath the surface of this clever, unsettling play. 

Onstage, everyone seemed to go through the motions efficiently enough, but with the two main characters — for whom this play was written — only skating across the surface of the relationship, it all seemed too mannered and flat.

Things do pick up in the second half, when impetuous Amanda and Elyot hotfoot it to Paris, leaving their new spouses behind in bewildered ignorance. The couple hurl themselves at each other, and the furniture, in a sort of obsessive and abusive version of the love that once made their life such hell. There’s some jolly good fun to be had, despite the possibility that Amanda and Elyot might eventually kill each other, and they shamelessly get away with making domestic violence seem so very entertaining.

Caveats notwithstanding, “Private Lives” more or less promises an evening of some frolicsome fun.

Performances take place Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8, and Sundays at 2:30, with an additional matinee set for June 8. Tickets are $30, $25 for senior citizens (except Saturday evenings), $20 for those under 35, and $10 for students.

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May 31, 2019 - 22:13
May 31, 2019 - 22:14