by Clark Groome
The works of Noel Coward, even when they deal with the intricacies of intimacy, as is the case with his “Private Lives,” should be performed with the lightest of touches. Coward’s works are brilliantly constructed and intelligently written. And they are comedies.
“Private Lives,” which is currently on view at the Walnut Street Theatre through March 1, shows us what happens when Elyot (the always admirable Greg Wood) and Sibyl Chase (Lauren Sowa) arrive at a seaside French spa for their honeymoon. In the apartment one balcony over is another honeymoon couple: Victor (Dan Hodge) and Amanda (Kathleen Wallace) Prynne.
The trouble is that Elyot and Amanda used to be married. In the play’s first act both of their new spouses wonder if they measure up to their exes. When Elyot and Amanda realize that they’re so proximate, the expected happens; they reconnect passionately and flee to Paris to start over.
In Paris the same problems originally faced in their marriage resurface. It’s predictable and if played like the theatrical equivalent of a soufflé, could be a comic delight.
That’s not to be, sorry to say, in the Walnut production. Director Bob Carlton and his cast seemingly decided that “Private Lives” deals with issues that are in reality pretty unpleasant. The only way to make sure those of us sitting out front know it’s a comedy is to play the entire thing at such a scene-chewing level that any subtlety is lost.
The result is a production that is so heavy-handed that what is most apparent is how hard the actors are working. Rather than looking like characters in a story worth watching, the Walnut’s production leaves the impression that the performers are working really hard to make us laugh and believe in them. It’s shallow and disappointing, considering the quality of the play and the quality of the cast.
What’s not disappointing is Robert Koharchick’s set design. The first act’s two balconies look like the ideal honeymoon retreat. The second act’s Paris apartment, with its stunning view of the Eiffel Tower, is an Art-Deco masterpiece. They are the production’s best elements, abetted ably by Stuart Duke’s lighting and Mark Mariani’s period-perfect costumes.
Ultimately I had the feeling that the folks on that stage and the man who directed them must have thought that the 1930s’ sensibilities were out of place in 2015. Too bad; because this play can still, in the right hands, be a real delight.
For tickets call 215-574-3550 or 1-800-982-2787 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org.