By Jordan Wright (Photo/Scott Suchman)
Noël Coward’s deliciously wicked “Private Lives” has got us in a tizzy.
Is it scrumptiously witty or delightfully snarky? No matter. This heady romp of delicious vitriol is considered Coward’s best. It’s a glimpse into the lives of the very rich and not so well divorced — we do enjoy a bit of schadenfreude now and again, don’t we?
For the uninitiated, Sibyl and Elyot are honeymooners. Ditto for Amanda and Victor. Elyot and Amanda are exes whose marriage went up in funereal flames.
By coincidence, the couples share an adjoining terrace in a chic hotel in the south of France. When Amanda and Elyot spy one another across a boxwood planter, the show takes off.
But can their romance reignite? After some sparring and reminiscing, Amanda trills an old tune to Elyot. As they both begin to soften their stances, she merrily quips one of Coward’s most recognizable lines: “It’s strange how potent cheap music is.”
Bianca Amato (Amanda) leaves no emotion unexploited in this hilarious verbal sword fight put on by the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Her jaw-dropped double take upon recognizing Elyot is as captivating as her solo rumba in red silk Chinese pajamas.
James Waterston as her ex-husband, Elyot, matches her swing for swing and thrust for thrust in this comedy of clever insults. He even does a respectable turn on the piano.
Coward recognized emotional baggage before the term was coined. He exploits the concept here as each couple transfers their fears and prejudices onto their new relationships. He cannily intuited the futility of the snake that eats its own tail while reveling in the high society that exalted it.
As Amanda succinctly philosophizes: “Very few people are completely normal in their private lives.” Coward would know. He lived both sides of it.
The very petite Autumn Hurlbert plays Sibyl, rendering the character as a crafty and manipulating — yet ditzy — blonde. But Elyot is suspicious of his new wife’s machinations and threatens beheading if they don’t leave the hotel and the impending spousal confrontations. The same goes for Amanda and Victor, who duke it out before the marriage is consummated.
When the honeymooners square off in the first act, with Sybil and Victor refusing to leave, insults fly like raptors in sight of prey. Fueled by cocktails, passion, gaiety and madness, the discord is mesmerizing. Being a fly on the wall has never been so alluring.
And don’t we adore seeing the privileged get their comeuppance? Even the French housekeeper, played smartly by Jane Ridley, gets her digs in.
“Idiotes!” she sneers at their absurdities.
The screamingly funny Jeremy Webb plays Victor. Webb perfectly captures the scrappy, moon-eyed, cuckolded husband, whom Elyot describes as “all fuss and fume.” He’s the perfect foil to the fabulously flippant Elyot, who tells him, “I think I’m cleverer than you are, but that’s not saying a lot.”
The hijinks and sophisticated repartee are enhanced by the breathtaking sets of Allen Moyer, whose depiction of a grand hotel, and later Amanda’s bespoke Paris apartment, left the audience gasping (and applauding) in appreciation.
This rollickingly spiffy jaunt is not to be missed.
“Private Lives” runs through July 13 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW, Washington. For tickets and information contact the box office at 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.