“Love is no use unless it’s wise and kind and undramatic.” From the first scene of Private Lives by Noel Coward, the stage is set to be torn apart.
Elyot Chase (played by second-year Augie Praley) and his wife Sibyl (fourth-year Sally Hall) are on their honeymoon, and the play opens with them exchanging overly cute dialogue on their balcony. Elyot tells of his longing for a quiet, uneventful marriage, but in truth, he seems a little put off by his wife’s complete lack of depth. The real trouble begins, however, when Sibyl broaches the subject of Elyot’s ex-wife, Amanda (second-year Evelyn Dehais). They shared a passionate and violent marriage that was broken off five years ago, and Elyot is clearly still not over it.
As Elyot and Sibyl disappear back into their room, the immediate appearance of Amanda on honeymoon with her new husband, Victor Prynne (second-year Brenden Heiberger) is inevitable. Of course, they are staying in the room next door, and only a railing separates the balconies. Victor and Amanda have a conversation that parallels Elyot and Sibyl’s, with the previous marriage again a subject of contention. In adjacent rooms, on separate honeymoons, and in the same colorless marriages, the scene is set for Elyot and Amanda’s reunion. When they do find each other again, it is anything but “wise and kind and undramatic.”
The danger in performing a romantic comedy on stage is that without good actors, the play will be a wholly unconvincing disaster. Fortunately, the acting is one of the highlights of this production. Each member of the five-person cast, which also includes third-year Kathleen Bockes as the maid, Louise, is excellent in his or her role.
The precarious marriages are appropriately delicate yet believable, since all of the romantic relationships are pulled off without a hint of awkwardness. Dehais and Praley are especially fun to watch together as the wild relationship between Amanda and Elyot careens from ecstasy to the brink of physical violence and back. In a play where one of the main themes is the danger of getting carried away by emotion, it is important to have a cast that can carry the audience away with them, which is just what they do.
Private Lives is a comedy, and it succeeds in being funny in two ways. The first is in its situational, and often physical, comedy. The best example of this is the scene in which Elyot and Amanda first recognize each other on their adjacent balconies, in the midst of what they thought was solitary reminiscing over a song. Their silent, comical panic is memorable. Most of the comedy of the play, however, comes from the various attempts to ignore, smooth over, or justify their completely irrational and highly emotional behavior. They struggle to remain levelheaded and sane by battling the irresistible pull of their emotions with flippancy, wit, avoidance, and distraction, but it is soon clear just how little control they have over themselves and their fates.
“Especially at a place like [the U of C], where we try so hard to separate the life of the mind from our emotional lives, [the play] raises a lot of questions about the amount of choice we have,” said director Will Fulton, a fourth-year, on what he wanted audiences to take away from the play. Even if, in typical U of C fashion, you think that your bastion of rationality is secure from all challenges and onslaughts, Private Lives is worth checking out. If nothing else, you will be engaged and entertained by the dysfunctional relationships that unfold.
Private Lives runs tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. in the Francis X. Kinahan Third Floor Theater.