A star vehicle without stars, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives is more airily amusing than D.C. audiences might be inclined to expect. This comedy of marital manners, scribbled during a four-day bout of flu as a treat for Coward’s muse, Gertrude Lawrence, has mostly seen earthbound productions hereabouts. Joan Collins headlined a memorably leaden one in the ’90s; a virtually laughless Liz Taylor/Richard Burton mounting staggered into the Kennedy Center a decade before that. If celebs of their stature can’t coax amusement from a trifle about mismatched honeymooning couples, what are mere mortals to do?
Quite a bit, it turns out, if those mortals are sufficiently supercilious. And with James Waterston’s Elyot peering archly down his nose, and Bianca Amato’s Amanda draping herself across balcony railings as if she were an art deco flourish posing for an architectural portrait, superciliousness is in ample supply at the Lansburgh Theatre.
The presence of stars has generally been thought necessary because there’s not much to the play besides a situation: Acrimoniously divorced Amanda and Elyot have arrived at a seaside hotel, each honeymooning with a brand new spouse, only to find they’ve been booked into adjacent suites with connected balconies. Awkwardness and cocktail-sipping ensues. For three acts. Still, there’s fun to be had in their belatedly discovering what the audience guesses immediately: that they should never have parted.
“You don’t hold any mystery for me, darling, do you mind?” Elyot murmurs when they’ve momentarily stopped spewing vitriol. “There isn’t a particle of you that I don’t know, remember, and want.”
That’s in act 1, let’s note, and there’s a lot of play still to go, which explains why even with Coward and Lawrence dropping the bons mots, Private Lives was regarded as pretty thin consommé at its 1930 premiere. Happily, Waterston and Amato are well enough matched to persuade an audience they aren’t kidding about being star-crossed. Also that they can overcome the token resistance offered by Autumn Hurlbert (squeakily frivolous) and Jeremy Webb (stodgily earnest) as their respectively inappropriate spouses.
Maria Aitken’s handsomely appointed staging (originally presented two years ago at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company) can’t make a longish second act seem anything other than transitional. And unlike some contemporary directors who’ve tried to plumb Beckettian depths in what critic John Lahr has called “a plotless play for purposeless people,” she’s content to have choreographic fun with the couple’s wordless time-outs, and keep the dialogue clicking along briskly. “Just a talent to amuse” is all Coward ever claimed for himself, and she takes him at his word.