As thin as the line between genius and insanity may be, the one between love and hate may be minuscule by comparison.
Or, so it seems in “Private Lives,” Noël Coward’s biting, three-act romantic comedy opening Jan. 20.
Coward played the leading role when the play opened at the new Phoenix Theater in London in 1930, and opened on Broadway in 1931. The cast has included theatrical luminaries over the years, including Laurence Olivier, Tallulah Bankhead, Gertrude Lawrence, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Maggie Smith and Kim Cattrall.
Tracking the relationships of two honeymooning couples in adjoining hotel suites overlooking the sea in northern France, many consider the work to be Coward’s masterpiece, his finest writing portraying challenges complicating the couples’ lives when it turns out two of the newlyweds used to be married to each other.
Directed by Shoestring Player’s founder Susan Voorhees, the story relates difficulties arising when Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne are shocked to discover each other on adjoining hotel balconies. Their three-year marriage dissolved in acrimony five years previous and now they’re celebrating nuptials with new spouses, Sybil and Victor.
Elyot is the ex-husband who’s flippant demeanor drives Amanda, his ex, to distraction, while her tempestuous nature proves unfathomable for him.
Leading roles are played by Amanda Urbaniak (Amanda), Ray Brown, (Elyot), Diane Ouradnik (Sibyl), Murry Holmstrom (Victor) and Ann Butman (Louise, the French maid).
The former weds can barely suffer hearing each other’s names, while Sybil and Victor prove most eager to learn everything they can about that stormy coupling, questioning Elyot and Amanda relentlessly. That relationship, it seems, was alternately passionate and ruinous.
Before discovering each other on the balconies, Elyot assures Sybil he loves her much “more wisely” than he did Amanda, and Amanda tells Victor she loves him “more calmly” than she did Elyot, raising the question whether the flame that once burned between the protagonists is really extinguished.
Both Elyot and Amanda meet a second time on the balconies after failing to convince their new spouses to leave the hotel with them immediately because of the presence of each other. There, the old flame flickers to life, with Elyot enthusing they had been so ridiculously “over in love” during their previous relationship and Amanda wistfully responding that “selfishness, cruelty, hatred, possessiveness, petty jealousy – all those qualities came out in us just because we loved each other.”
At that, they decide the only road left for them is to abandon their new spouses on the coast of France. They head for Amanda’s flat in Paris where, history repeats itself with their ardor running hot and very cold, occasionally getting physical at both ends of the scale.
Eventually, their jilted new spouses track them down and solutions are sought to resolve the foibles of this misadventure of love and war where the leading lady insists it is “chance” which directs each step of her life and her man considers love of no use “unless it’s wise.”