Review: Noel Coward’s Wit Retains Its Flavor in Updated Private Lives at Raven Theatre

Two newly wed couples arrive for their honeymoons at a swank resort hotel in France. Unbeknownst to both couples, the recently divorced mates (one of each) are among the honeymooning guests. In the suite next door, in fact. That’s a perfect setup for a Noel Coward rom-com play, the genre at which he was a master.

Set in 1930, Private Lives is now on stage to open Raven Theatre’s 40th season at their venue in Edgewater. Ian Frank directs the four-hander. Five, if you count the chic French maid, Louise, ravishingly played by Bradley Halverson. And you should count Louise because they open scenes in French and mark time, as well as occasionally serve coffee.

Galvan and Tate as Elyot and Amanda.. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

As the play opens, Elyot and Sybil Chase (Rudy Galvan and Alexis Green) have just arrived at their hotel and are ready to dress for dinner at the casino. As Elyot brings pre-dinner cocktails to the terrace, he discovers that the neighboring suite is occupied by his ex-wife, Amanda (Emily Tate) and her new husband, Victor Prynne (Matthew Martinez Hannon).  Both couples have already been bickering about whether their mates’ former mates are still objects of affection.

In that moment on the terrace, Elyot and Amanda discover that they are indeed still madly in love, even though they spent much of their marriage in memorable quarrels. But they vow they will do better this time.

Amanda says, “The moment we notice we’re bickering, either of us, we must promise on our honor to stop dead. We’ll invent some phrase or catchword, which when either of us says it, automatically cuts off all conversation for at least five minutes.”

“No, two minutes, dear,  with an option for renewal, “ Elyot says.

And off they go to Amanda’s elegantly decorated Paris apartment, leaving their two unmatched mates behind.

Matthew Martinez Hannon, Emily Tate and Alexis Green. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Act two takes place in that apartment, both Amanda and Elyot dressed in the top or bottom half of a pair of pajamas. They are deliciously in love again.

When Private Lives was first produced, it was almost censored. The second act love scenes were considered too risqué because the characters were divorced and married to others. Coward went to visit the Lord Chamberlain to plead his case, assuring him that the staging would be dignified and unobjectionable. And the play went on.

One of the delightful bits in act two is a love scene with the two lovers rolled up a huge blanket, head to almost toes. Quite artful, but its intention clear. The performances by both Galvan and Tate are appropriately sophisticated with comic touches suited to the Coward script.

Ian Frank’s direction might please the playwright too. The scenes move along briskly and by the end  of act two, the Paris apartment becomes a disaster zone, artfully ravaged by the actors. Scenic design is by Joe Schermoly with lighting by Becca Jeffords. Sound design is by Daniel Etti-Williams. Costume design is by Gregory Graham. James Anthony is stage manager.

During intermission, I like to observe the stage crew, the key people who make scene changes, always dressed in their uniform black. In Private Lives, some of the crew forego tactical pants and t-shirts for lacy skirts and boots.

Private Lives continues through November 13 at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. Tickets are $40 for performances Thursday-Sunday with $15 tickets available for students, active military and veterans. Running time is two hours including an intermission. Masks are required while you’re in the theater building.  

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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