Theater Review: “Private Lives” — Time for Retirement?

By David Greenham

Even when it is well performed, as it is here, it is unclear whether Noël Coward’s well-constructed comic concoction deserves another theatrical lease on life.

Stephen Shore and Katie Croyle in Gloucester Stage’s production of Private Lives. Photo: Jason Grow

Private Lives by Noël Coward. Directed by Diego Arciniegas. Scenic design by Izmir Ickbal. Costume design by Nai Safarr Banks. Lighting by Anshuman Bhatia. Sound design by Eric Hamel. Staged by Gloucester Stage at East Main Street, Gloucester, through June 25.

Gloucester Stage’s new artistic director Rebecca Bradshaw begins her tenure in a surprising way by selecting an old chestnut, Private Lives, as her first show. It could be argued that the script falls into the category of “rousing classic,” as outlined in the company’s mission. But the script premiered in 1930, and time and cultural changes (accelerated by the rise of #Me Too) have not been kind to its “sophisticated” humor among the privileged, some of which depends on misogyny and drunkenness. Does Coward’s intimate comedy about the idle rich hold up any longer? This is a play where the leading man famously declares, “certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.”

Coward’s setup is marvelously direct. Formerly combative divorced couple Elyot Chase (Gunnar Manchester) and Amanda Pryne (Katie Croyle) are shocked to discover that they are honeymooning with their new spouses Sibyl Chase (Serenity S’Rae) and Victor Pryne (Stephen Shore) in the same luxurious seaside hotel in France. When Eliot and Amanda spot each other on their adjoining terraces, the old animal magnetism kicks in — they instantly agree that they can’t live without each other. They run off together, and the high jinks begin.

Some of Coward’s dialogue for the hedonistic upper class has been edited, thankfully, but much of what’s left comes off as stiffly dated. Still, the sexual/domestic conflicts are modern (i.e,. messy) enough to hold our attention. As Elyot, Manchester combines leading man energy with an affable quirky discomfort. Despite his occasional bursts of snobbish dialogue, he manages to be roughly charming. Croyle’s Amanda is more successful; she highlights her character’s dizzying contradictions through a skillful use of her comedic instincts, particularity when it comes to timing.

Even Coward felt sorry for the newlywed spouses who are instantly dumped by the script’s antagonistic narcissistic leads. “These poor things are little better than ninepins, lightly wooden and only there to be repeatedly knocked down and stood up again,” Coward wrote not long after the play was published. Shore’s Victor seems to intuit his character’s knockabout status — he supplies wonderful touches of Chaplinesque physical comedy. He’s perfectly “all fuss and fume,” as Elyot describes him. Newcomer Serenity S’rae, who just earned her BFA at Boston University in May, is making her Boston-area professional debut. She holds her own in what might be the script’s most unforgiving role: Sibyl is a woman who is dismissed by her husband at nearly every turn.

Jennifer Bubriski as the French maid Louise supplies several hilarious moments once the action returns to Amanda’s apartment in Paris and all hell breaks loose. Particularly winning: her dismissive and bemused glaring as she peeks from the wings to watch a steadily deteriorating scene of discord among the couples.

Serenity S’rae and Gunnar Manchester in  Gloucester Stage’s production of Private Lives. Photo: Jason Grow

Director Diego Arciniegas, along with fight and intimacy director Angie Jepson, do their best to keep the action moving quickly, rolling over spots where the dialogue runs aground. The production takes a little over two hours, with two 10-minute breaks, and it rarely slows down. Act one is clear and, at times, amusing. Elyot and Amanda aren’t very likable people, but when they finally set their eyes on each other the result is a rich comic explosion. Arciniegas adds a very effective silent coda at the end of the first act. Sibyl and Victor discover both of their spouses have departed and, in an instant, connect the dots in Coward’s ridiculous plot.

The challenge to overcome in Private Lives (aside from the passage of time), is its chatty second act. Elyot and Amanda are in her Paris apartment and their retread love nest has already begun to unravel after a few days. Kudos to intimacy director Jepson for crafting an effective, and sometimes even touching, series of love scenes that walk the tightrope between intimacy and physical comedy. Private Lives is nothing without its fights, and the choreography here is rollicking and well executed by Manchester and Croyle. The hand-to-hand is enhanced, at one point, by Manchester’s musical skill. He plays and sings a lovely version of Coward’s song “Come the Wild, Wild Weather,” which was composed during the dramatist’s music hall performance ventures in the ’60s. This interlude turns out to be a production highlight.

Izmir Ickbal’s settings and Emme Shaw’s properties reflect wealth and (mostly) the time period. The spatial relationship of the layout — especially in Amanda’s apartment — lends itself perfectly to Gloucester Stage’s three-quarter thrust stage. There’s really not a bad seat in the house.

Nai Safarr Banks manages to support both the look and the physical demands made on the actors. Whatever the performers wear, it needs to withstand a substantial amount of stress. The playful wardrobe for S’rea’s Sibyl is particularly fun and attractive.

There is a problematic element in the production: Eric Hamel’s sound. The preshow and intermission music is wonderfully selected, and the underscoring of the fights is perfect. But a decision was made to provide ambient sounds, first of the ocean and a neighbor’s music during act one, and then a soundscape of various “city” noises in acts two and three. The sonics don’t contribute anything necessary; in fact, they eventually begin to become irritating, like the white noise you hear outside of a doctor’s office. True, there are textual references to some of the music, and that’s fine. But overkill of the ambient soundscape undercuts the intimacy of what’s happening on stage.

All in all, however, Gloucester Stage’s production manages to ring some mirth, if not necessarily relevancy, out of Coward’s farce. A few years after it was written, the author noted that Private Lives features “cocktails, evening dress, repartee, and allusions to copulation.” Even when it is well performed, as it is here, it is unclear whether that is enough to warrant giving Coward’s well-constructed concoction another theatrical lease on life.

David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.


  1. Daniel Gewertz on June 12, 2023 at 1:27 pm

    What a well written and fully detailed review. The social/sexual/gender politics of a 93 year old comedy are clearly stated as speed-bumps and difficulties, but not overstated. I have never heard of action and intimacy directors before, so that is another plus for Mr. Greenham’s cogent, instructive and complete review.

  2. Tom Connolly on June 13, 2023 at 5:02 pm

    While I applaud David Greenham’s detailed and sensitive review, I dispute his contention that Coward’s play has no place in the 21st century repertoire. This spring a revival at the Donmar Warehouse successfully shedded the play’s flippancy and emphasized its trenchancy. Is The Importance of Being Earnest ready for the dustbin because none of its characters work and the women in it seem only interested in marriage? If Private Lives has become a period piece it joins Wilde’s masterpiece, The School for Scandal and The Front Page. If the characters in Coward’s play aren’t always pleasant or are objectionable, this makes the play complex. If Coward’s quartet seem to be making excessive demands, there are plenty of rom-coms to stream. One would do well to recall what Amanda says about our “private lives.”

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