City Paper is not for tourists
How do you stage a drawing-room comedy in a walk-in closet? Ask H. Lee Gable: In the backroom at the Playbill Cafe, with atmospheric contributions from a cabaret chanteuse as well as the occasional bit of shattering kitchen crockery, he’s pulled off that classic Noël Coward bickerfest Private Lives—in a space that normally wouldn’t do justice to its heroine’s wardrobe.
Mostly pulled off, anyway. Look too close (as if you could help it), and you’ll notice that there’s gaffer’s tape keeping the stuffing in that watered-silk divan. And there is, inevitably, something a little jarring about sitting so close you could tell which actors forgot to brush.
Still, scenarist Richard Montgomery has managed to wedge not just a shared hotel courtyard into that space for Act 1’s honeymoon-gone-haywire scenes in the seaside resort of Deauville but to engineer an intermission transformation that whisks the outdoors away in favor of a convincingly cozy Paris flat, complete with an ingenious little art nouveau cocktail bar to complement that divan. And Jason Cowperthwaite lights it prettily, especially with the string of colorful Chinese lanterns that accents the moonlight-and-malice glow of those opening mishaps.
Ah, yes, those mishaps. Divorcés Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne find themselves—horripilation! exaltation!—inhabiting adjacent honeymoon suites with their newly wedded loves, Sybil and Victor; each one younger, each one less suitable for their older, worldlier partners. (“It wasn’t an innocent heart,” Amanda muses, with reference to what Elyot broke five years previously; “it was jagged with sophistication.”) Will it be mere minutes before Coward reorders the couples, flinging Elyot and Amanda into each others’ arms again and allowing Sybil’s girly charms to captivate the bluff young Victor?
Hours, as it happens—at least until all the false starts are finished and the cross but starry-eyed lovers finally learn to knife each other nicely. It’s an old-fashioned play that way, prone to dawdling over revelations, observations, and complications that once upon a time would have made it fairly scandalous but now seem only mildly wicked. Coward was the craftsman’s craftsman, though, so the scenes clip along nicely, and the best bits of dialogue have a nasty little snap. “Had she my talent for organization?” asks the nervously chatty Sybil, obsessively investigating the previous marriage her Elyot would clearly rather not reflect on; “No, but she hadn’t your mother, either,” he replies, and you can positively hear the words resonating in Coward’s drolly acid accent.
Cam Magee’s handsome Amanda, done up for her honeymoon in a chic trouser suit and bow tie, looks every bit the iconoclast the script says she is, and Magee finds a few wise-woman moments to showcase among Coward’s bons mots, which is nice; more than once, Bruce Alan Rauscher lets Elyot’s sardonic pose slip, revealing the man as a genuinely selfish misogynist barely redeemed by his manners, which is brave. Megan Dominy’s frequently shrill Sybil and Jeremy Lister’s frequently shirtless Victor mostly stay out of the way—which is their function in a play conceived as a vehicle for Coward and one of his favorite co-stars—and Barbara Papendorp, when she’s not warbling “Parisian Pierrot” from behind a scrim in a corner, delivers a few choice epithets in what sounds to my ear like creditable housekeeperly French.