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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Private Lives

It doesn't suit women to be promiscuous. — Elyot
It doesn't suit men for women to be promiscuous — Amanda
Private Lives
Caralyn Kozlowski and Scott Barrow in Private Lives (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Director Paul Mullins ha s guided a seductive company quite nimbly and without a visible safety net through Noel Coward's Private Lives, a veritable avalanche of witty asides, naughty twists and wacky turns. In 1931, the final curtain had barely come down on the original run starring the playwright and Gertrude Lawrence when MGM released its slightly modified film version starring Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery.

For those of you who know and have seen the film (most likely on TCM), Shearer unapologetically epitomizes Amanda as the sexually free spirit and woman of emancipated morals. And she does it with incomparable charm. This is partly why I am so taken with Caralyn Kozlowski's equally designing portrayal for the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey production.

Over the years, there has been a long and illustrious list of actors who have tackled (literally) these juicy roles. And what seasoned players don't relish the thought of spending two hours snapping, bickering, punching and insulting each other. That there are two productions currently playing in New Jersey (the other at the Cape May Stage and another one in the Berkshires), says something about the play's continuing ability to alarm and amuse.

Private Lives also seems to have invited a darker perspective than it did originally. But we'll have none of that in director Paul Mullins's breathtakingly breezy staging. Regardless of which path a director takes, this remains a resolutely sexy comedy in which coincidences are layered upon incidences to the loftiest heights of sophistication.

Two honeymooning couples find they have connecting terraces at a posh hotel on the coast of France. The discovery that the husband of one couple has been previously married to the wife of the other leads us directly into a high-style farce as only Coward could conceive it.

A tempestuous marriage, a bitter divorce and a surprising reunion find Amanda and Elyot shocking their deserted spouses, but diverting themselves and us with their irreverent wickedness. In truth, they are a pair of wretched, spoiled, and synthetic two dimensional twits. So what is it about them that we adore? In this production, at least, Kozlowski (Amanda) and Scott Barrow (Elyot Chase) appear to play spontaneously off each other's incorrigibly bad behavior. These polished actors never let us forget that Amanda and Elyot cannot help but despise and desire each other with an equality amount of energy and passion.

In harmony at least with the deliciously silly but raucously cutting Coward repartee, Kozlowski is extremely attractive and also appears tailored for the Cowardian style. With the help of Jacqueline Firkins's haute couture fashions, Kozlowski looks worthy of the line that greets her first appearance, "You look wonderful. . . like a beautiful advertisement for something." She even looks chic after the bedlam of an all-out battle royal with her ex. The scene in Amanda's flat in Paris, in which she smashes a record over Elyot's head, he literally flings her across the room, they engage in a pillow fight and fall over the furniture, is masterfully staged with the assist of fight director Rick Sordelet.

Barrow is Kozlowski's match, if not in equal candor, certainly in deftly executed retaliation. Able to parry in desperation with his beloved hellion, but too much a gentleman to knock down Victor (Robert Gomes), his former wife's irate husband, Barrow holds his half of the court with uncompromising élan. A favorite moment is Barrow at the piano as Kozlowski winningly warbles (the Coward standard) "Someday I'll Find You, ," and just before they are ready to kill each other yet again. Together Amanda and Elyot mirror a mischievous style of life that could only exist on a stage.

Happily, the stage has been dressed handsomely by set designer James Wolk to withstand all the sex and the shenanigans. The use of blood red as the dominant color palate of Amanda's apartment is clever, with its view of Paris and the Eiffel Tower and a vast collection of modern art (including a Picasso) decorating the walls.

Charlotte Parry screeches hilariously as "quibbling," Sybil and Gomes earns his share of laughs as the bellowing windbag Victor. Rarely does an entrance garner as much laughter as the one made by Mary Dierson as the disgruntled French maid Louise as she becomes the victim of an obstacle course of battle-scattered furniture.

It was exactly 25 years ago that I saw Elizabeth Taylor and then husband Richard Burton on Broadway covet the spotlight as the sparring ex's Amanda and Elyot in this otherwise perfect jewel of a comedy. What more can you say about this frothy exercise except to use an apropos line from the play, "Strange how potent cheap music is.,"

Private Lives
 By Noel Coward
  Directed by Paul Mullins
  Cast: Charlotte Parry, Scott Barrow, Robert Gomes, Caralyn Kozlowski, Mary Dierson.
  Set Designer: James Wolk
  Costume Designer: Jacqueline Firkins
  Lighting Design: Michael Giannitti
  Sound Designer: Steven L. Beckel
  Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
  Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including 2 intermissions
  Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, Main Stage, the F.M. Kirby
  Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Avenue in Madison (on the campus of Drew University). (973) – 408 – 5600
  Performances: Tuesdays and Wednesday at 7:30; Thursday through Saturdays at 8 PM; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 PM and Sundays at 7 PM. Tickets ($38 - $53)
  Opened 08/08/08 Ends 08/31/08
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 08/08/08

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