It’s with a sigh that I note the absence of sighs in this week’s Noel Coward premieres. There ought to be dozens: little snippy sighs signifying pique, deep sighs of yearning, tight sighs of frustration, sighs of satisfaction, delirium, and the sheer joy of letting out breath, sighs by the armful both onstage and off. Instead there is bluster and, frequently, laughter. Not a terrible trade, perhaps, but not an entirely good one either.
Take Private Lives, which can be a sophisticated, upper-crusty romp when given a little breathing room. As staged at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan Theater in a boisterous, lickety-split style better suited to Neil Simon, it’s reduced to sitcom status—funny enough, but without the grace notes that distinguish Coward’s work from that of less elegant writers. The plot concerns Elyot (Ian Price) and Amanda (Catherine Flye), a long-divorced couple who are appalled to find themselves in adjacent honeymoon suites on their first nights with much younger spouses. Actually, they’re only partly appalled. They’re also a little thrilled, since both are already feeling trapped by their new matches.
And well they should. Urbane, bookish Elyot has married a flighty creature named Sibyl (Lucy Symons) who unreasonably expects him to make a constant fuss over her. Volatile, self-sufficient Amanda has wed Victor (Steve Cramer), a stuffy prig who does his best to stifle her blithe spirit so he can take care of her. If you know Coward was gay, and that he wrote the play as a vehicle for himself and longtime buddy Gertrude Lawrence, it may occur to you that the best match for Elyot is neither Sibyl nor Amanda but Victor, but never mind. The play is craftily contrived and sparklingly written. All it needs is a pair of graceful leading performers.
The Folger Shakespeare Library/Interact Theater Company co-production initially appears to have them, but only until Price and Flye settle into their hotel suites. Dealing with his new bride, Price’s Elyot is the very image of Brit hauteur—lofty and cavalier, yet somehow sensitive. The instant he sees Amanda, however, his speech takes on an arch uppityness that has more to do with clipped diction than with being to the manor born. Flye’s Amanda also begins decorously, approaching her new mate with such engaging imperiousness that it’s easy to understand why he might think she’s tame enough for him to handle. Alas, given a few moments alone with Price, she begins tossing her head, striking poses, and generally behaving like an overbearing harpy. Since much of the play’s fun is voyeuristic (its basic attraction lying in the glimpse it allows middle-class audiences of refined folk who’ve kicked their shoes off), playing these two as nouveau riche vulgarians robs the evening of its payoff.
The supporting cast is better, with Symons chirping away vapidly as Sibyl and Cramer’s Victor giving the appearance of being so pompously overstuffed that he’s about to pop his buttons. All the performers, perhaps driven by director Pat Carroll, whose own acting career has centered on comedy of a more raucous sort than is called for here, tend to confuse briskness with wit, but that’s a natural mistake. At the play’s 1930 London premiere, Mrs. Patrick Campbell told the author, “Your characters all talk like typewriters,” and directors have been trying to live up to that description ever since. Recordings of Coward and Lawrence, however, illustrate the value of the sometimes languorous pauses the two stars inserted between the dialogue’s staccato reports. Comedy needs room to breathe, and on the Folger’s unnecessarily cluttered stage, it isn’t getting nearly enough.
I’m indebted to Sheridan Morley’s biographical revue Noel and Gertie for that Campbell quote in the previous paragraph, but not for much else. Morley has hit upon a notion that sounds better than it plays: using Coward’s words and music to illuminate the author’s lifelong friendship with a woman he says he adored, “but not that way.” The trouble is, the two didn’t actually work together much, so the evening is really just an excuse—and a rather cumbersome one, at that—to trot out Coward material that can be seen to better advantage elsewhere.
The celebrated author met Lawrence when both were in their early teens, and their ascent to theatrical superstardom in the ’20s and ’30s was indeed remarkable. Lawrence co-starred with Coward in two of his biggest hits (Private Lives and To-Night at 8:30, a collection of nine one-act playlets that premiered six years later), both of which were written specifically with her talents in mind. She also sang Coward songs when she headlined various musical revues, though not necessarily the songs she sings in Noel and Gertie, since at least one (“Sail Away”) was written several years after her death.
Sometimes—as when snippets of Still Life (the To-Night at 8:30 sketch that served as the basis for the movie Brief Encounter) are used to illustrate the tension between two close, but not physically passionate, friends—the show’s premise works like a charm. Other times, Morley’s prose shows the strain of shoehorning material into places it doesn’t fit chronologically (“years earlier, Noel had written the song which perfectly summed up…”), or for that matter, even logically.
The production isn’t helped by overloud musical accompaniment that forces Scott Morgan and Peggy Yates—performers who have proven quite capable of nuance under other circumstances—to shout many of their lines and lyrics. Yates can sing with both a bell-like purity and a brassy authority, neither of which has much to do with Lawrence (most familiar to modern audiences as Anna in The King and I). Still, her voice is rewarding in its own right. And when Daniel Sticco’s piano quiets enough to allow him to throw away a line, Morgan throws them away fetchingly. The cast has been directed to push and push by David Jackson, but their work is still subtle enough that, backed by Carl F. Gudenius’ deco panels, it has a period flair. It won’t make anyone forget Oh Coward! or Cowardly Custard, two better revues that celebrate the genius of this man who had “a talent to amuse,” but it’ll get you through the evening. Sigh.