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The Perils of Private Lives

Mark Rucker sharpens a 1930s comedy of manners in his latest Cal Shakes production.

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Amanda Prynne is that rare female character who can describe herself to a T: Not innocent and girlish, as she explains to second husband Victor in Noël Coward's 1930 comedy, Private Lives, but "jagged with sophistication." It's perfect imagery for someone who falls in a lineage of hard, intelligent British women, from Elizabeth Bennet on down. At the beginning of Private Lives, Amanda and Victor are honeymooning in a posh French hotel, blissfully unaware that her ex-husband, Elyot Chase, lies just next door with his own new spouse. Trouble ensues once Amanda and Elyot bump into each other, causing a combustible reaction. Passions rekindle, hard feelings resurface, and new relationships vaporize. It's enough drama to buoy a two-and-a-half hour comedy of manners, now almost a century old but still relevant to anyone who's endured a horrible divorce, or sustained a "closet" relationship. A new Cal Shakes production stays true to the original setting but approaches Coward's themes from a modern sensibility — so the talk is sexier and the passion more violent. Directed by the amazing Mark Rucker, it's both a character study and a primer on what not to do in a relationship. As comedy, it's terrific.

This Private Lives has the appearance of being concise and spare — two sets, three acts, five characters — when it's actually quite complex. First off, it requires incredible stamina on the part of its male and female lead. Amanda (played by the regal Diana LaMar) and Elyot (Stephen Barker Turner) both have long swaths in dialogue in which they attempt to iron out their marital difficulties, but wind up volleying insults and hurling allegations at one another. Secondly, it's an incredibly busy production. The stage directions for Elyot and Amanda's fight scenes require them to constantly move about the space, tromping up stairwells, breaking furniture, or punching frustratedly at the air. It can get a bit distracting at times, but it helps underline two of the play's main themes: 1) That love and war are hopelessly intertwined and 2) that affluent, well-mannered Brits can be downright savage behind closed doors.

And granted, they're an absolutely perfect match. Brainy, cosmopolitan Amanda is much better suited to Elyot than his new wife Sybil (played by Sarah Nealis, who recently starred in Cal Shakes' Romeo and Juliet). Sartorial choices alone speak volumes about the two women: Amanda, with her dark bob and classy evening gowns, versus red-headed Sybil with her blobby, floral-print dresses. It's like trying to compare a noir heroine to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Moreover, hot-blooded Elyot piques Amanda's interest much more than her current husband, the staid Victor Prynne (played by another Romeo and Juliet emeritus, the excellent Jud Williford). This Private Lives is, in fact, full of symbolism that highlights the sexual chemistry between Elyot and Amanda, from their matching pajamas to the way they chomp olives from their martini glasses. When they first meet on the hotel terrace, an orchestra plays Perry Como's "Someday I'll Find You" over and over again, causing Elyot to almost lose composure: "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is."

LaMar and Turner are two extraordinary actors who obviously understand their characters and know how to get in the psychology of a bad relationship. In the first act, Amanda describes them as "two vile acids bubbling about in a matrimonial bottle," which turns out to be apropos. The second act follows the ex-spouses to Amanda's apartment in Paris, with its old-fashioned rotary telephone, opera 45s, and colored lanterns dangling from the ceiling. For about five minutes they seem contentedly enraptured with one another, and the next instant, someone says something to upset that fragile equilibrium. Fighting, for them, amounts to a form of pas de deux: Both are snappy and sharp-witted, but also quick to use teeth, claws, and fists. Such turbulence, juxtaposed with the cloying torch songs that never fail to ignite old passions, is what brings this relationship to life.

Private Lives is a thoroughly wonderful play. Coward's script is a long series of quips and witty rejoinders, and Rucker's interpretation gives it more of a barbed edge. The dialogue crackles, and the actors — including Liam Vincent, who waltzes in toward the end to play an irritable French butler — all inhabit their roles with gusto. Best of all, it's familiar and utterly unpredictable at the same time. There's that "aha" moment at the beginning, when Amanda and Elyot accidentally cross paths, fall back in love, and have their first recon mission. Thenceforth you're pretty sure which way this play's headed. But then, all of a sudden, it goes the other way. You're in the grip of these characters with their poor decisions and perilous relationships, and you have no idea what's going to happen next. But that's most of the fun.

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