The Kansas City Actors Theatre revives a funny play about wife beating.

Fight Night 

The Kansas City Actors Theatre revives a funny play about wife beating.

Let's be superficial and pity the poor philosophers," says Eloyt, the caddish male lead in Noel Coward's Private Lives. Coward's audiences have long been coached to do just that. Since its debut, the show — one of Coward's most popular plays — has been toasted or damned by critics as a thin, idea-less confection. But in the Kansas City Actors Theatre's revival, it reveals itself as a more cruel and prickly piece of work than you might expect. It's carried off with professional elegance, with dashing tuxes and a stately set, and it's worth the time of theater hounds, anglophiles and anyone who finds bons-mots and wife beating equally hysterical.

Historically, critics have tended to summarize the innocent-sounding first act — which introduces a divorced couple who bounce back into each other's lives when both just happen to be honeymooning with new spouces in adjoining hotel suites — but leave the rest vague, dwelling on the farcial setup at the expense of the meat of the show: Eloyt and Amanda ditching their dullard lovers to torture each other.

Acts two and three begin in a postcoital haze that rapidly turns poisonous. Langorous and pickled in brandy, our divorcees reignite much of what they loved about each other — and all of what they hated. The comic energy comes from their attempts to quell their mutual distaste. They'll embrace, stroking each other, their words of love humming between them, until some undigested bit of history creeps up or some bitchy remark or some innocous nothing that somehow — as happens between lovers who have known each other too long — bears the taste of every awful thing about each other. Hatred quivers in the air between them. For a while, they dispell it, though the rage clearly runs deeper than the lust.

Soon, they're beating the hell out of each other.

Coward is generous with the laugh lines, but I still have a hard time comprehending this play's rep as a delightful and frivolous romance. Am I alone in not finding domestic violence either of these things?

Not to say I don't find it funny. But the night I caught Private Lives, I was often the first to laugh and sometimes the only one. Director Mark Robbins has honed his Eloyt (Robert Gibby Brand) and Amanda (Melinda McCready) to remarkable sharpness, encouraging rages that shake the theater and making explicit Coward's link between sex and violence. McCrary and Brand excel at both the romantic fluff and the tongue lashings, but once the fists start flying, they seem too careful, too polite. With our leads insufficiently direct in their actions, the audience stews, stymied at whether it's possible to laugh yet still be a good person.

The rest of the time, McCrary and Brand are each a tart joy, especially when together. They swap Coward's insults with jolly sadism, as if what hurts the other is a gift to oneself. McCrary's quavering, upper-crust intonations polish her lines, and Brand's Eloyt is a jewel of an asshole, someone you'd never trust but would love to dish with.

Heidi Stubblefield and Stuart Rider score in the one-note roles of Amanda and Eloyt's jilted spouses, though Rider's first long scene with McCrary is tough going: Both speak slowly, and neither seems to be reacting to what the other is saying.

In the 1930s, early reviews of Private Lives hailed it as smashing but inconsequential, and few saw fit to dwell upon the violence. (In one piece, The New York Times got around it by describing the play as "tempestous.") These days, when we're presumably touchier about things, the subject is still often left out of notices. Even the Actors Threatre's Web site pimps it as a tossed-off good time. Private Lives, the site boasts, "creates a farcical havoc of love and confusion that we will all recognize." That we will all recognize? Who are they expecting at this thing? Coward might have been a great, but his work has as little to do with universal experience as the Bush tax code does.

None of these concerns necessarily spoil Private Lives. Instead, they illustrate how "popular" entertainment is often pregnant with greater complexity than is admitted and how our culture shifts through time.

Last century, I suspect, everyone found this couple knocking each other about too strange to take seriously — people weren't like that, right? Now, when private lives are public fodder and every aristocrat's every transgression is but a mouse click away, what once seemed absurd has come to seem true.

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