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A CurtainUp Review

Private Life

Noël Coward was a larger-than life, multi-talented stage personality -- actor, playwright, lyricist- composer, nightclub entertainer and memoirist. It is his first venture into the last category that jumpstarts the situation of Private Life (not to be confused with one of his still regularly revived and most successful comedies Private Lives.) This caveat notwithstanding, the title is no doubt intended to identify this staged slice of celebrity life with the similarly titled and popular play and at the same time titillate audiences with behind-the-scenes revelations about Coward's private pecadillos. It isn't long into this play that yet another comparison comes to mind, this time not to Coward or his work but to Full Gallop, Mary Louis Wilson's brilliant one-woman drama about a turning point in fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland's life. (see link to review at end).

To cut to the chase. . .

Private Life is no match for the play with which it associates itself, nor does it shed any new light on Coward's well-documented life. The only shedding done here is a sailor's bell bottoms during an encounter that the Coward on the Grove street stage can't remember because he was too drunk. As for the kinship to Full Gallop, while Coward was every bit as interesting and flamboyant as Vreeland, this play is literally a pale comparison -- from its muted beige set and matching costumes (Gallop was all blazing red contrasted with black), to star and playwright Craig Archibald's script and performance. Archibald would have benefited from a co-author (as did Mary Louise Wilson) to help him find a stronger dramatic focus; for example, why fixate on the failure of the book Present Indicative instead of the revue Tonight At 8:30 and the actress Gertrude Lawrence who figured much more meaningfully in that 1937 period of his life than Marlene Dietrich? His performance while a competent Coward impersonation, is neither electrifying or original.

These unflattering comparisons notwithstanding, Private Life has its rewards and, judging from the audience response at the Saturday night full house I attended, enough laughs to warrant praise for its amusement value. While it's impossible for even the most skilled playwright to capture Coward's many bon mots, Archibald lassos enough to capture at least the flavor of the man's wit.

Also to its credit, this essentially one-person comedy drama does introduce two other actors to make it more of a "real" play. The more visible of these is Carolyn Baeumler as the secretary who was part of Coward's entourage or what he referred to as "the family." The introduction of her unsatisfactory relationship with another woman seems superfluous and doesn't quite convey the intended contrast to Coward's own need to rise above his own crisis of coping with critical failure and personal obligations. Ms. Baeumler's knowing amusement when she meets Coward's pickup date from the previous night in the altogether did send the audience into peals of laughter. It struck me as pandering to the sort of broad humor the sophisticated Coward would have abhorred.

The other actor, the one-night-stand (Matthew Del Negro), is very much a hunk. The scene where he and Coward say goodbye is well-done. The follow-up showing Coward's ability to convert every experience into a lyric with the refrain "Pity me" would have been stronger with one of Coward's many superior lyrics as an example.

Valda Lake's set, given the obvious budget restraints of this production, has nice authentic touches -- an old-fashioned phone which required hotel operators to do all the work, three exits to facilitate on-and-off stage movement. Costume designer Alex Bartlett has assembled the obligatory Coward smoking jackets and provided a stunning outfit with matching two-tone pumps for Ms.Baeumler. To set the mood for the evening, there's music by Tommy Dorsey, Arty Shaw's "Begin the Beguine" and Judy Garland (also a Coward friend) singing "Over the Rainbow."

Links of interest to readers of this review:
Our review of last year's revival of Present Laughter .
Our review of Graham Payn's My Life With Noël Coward published in conjunction with the above revival.
Our review of Full Gallop

Written by Craig Archibald
Directed by Jim Frangione
Featuring Craig Archibald as Coward, Matthew Del Negro and Carolyn Baumler
Sets: Valda Lake
Costumes: Alex Bartlett
Grove Street Playhouse, (212/358-3480) Wed-Sun 8 p.m.
2/04/98-2/22/98; opening 2/08/98
Reviewed 2/09/98 by Elyse Sommer

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