NEW YORK — At the far end of the gallery, in the same glass case with Noël Coward’s Tony Award and a letter Coward wrote to a young Edward Albee, is a black-and-white photo of Harold Pinter in director mode, talking to his “Blithe Spirit” stars. It’s 1976 in London, and Maria Aitken, Pinter’s willowy Elvira, listens with a lighted cigarette in her left hand, the smoke curling upward.
Flash-forward 36 years, and Aitken is now directing Coward, too: a production of “Private Lives” at the Huntington Theatre Company, which happens to coincide with “Star Quality: The World of Noël Coward,” a major exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Slippers and silk dressing gowns, film clips and handwritten manuscripts, a Steinway baby grand with Coward sheet music open on the rack: His art and artifacts sprawl through the gallery. Near the entrance, in a cache of the playwright’s smoking paraphernalia, is a slender metal box stuffed with a dozen or so filtered white Reyno cigarettes — “original to the case,” the explanatory text notes.
Such are the riches of the exhibition, and Aitken is not immune to them.
“It gave me huge kind of shoplifting tendencies,” the British director says after rehearsal one evening in Boston. “I thought, surely they’re not going to miss one of these cigarette cases or an ashtray.” She laughs. “And then I thought, when I get diagnosed with something terminal and I go back to smoking — which I absolutely would — wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was one of Coward’s cigarettes?”
The tobacco might be a touch on the stale side, here in the next millennium. But to Aitken, who has acted in a passel of Coward plays in London’s West End, his drama remains not only modern but, in its way, timeless.
“He just does understand how sex works, and yet he never is overtly sexual,” says Aitken, who previously directed “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” and last season’s “Educating Rita” at the Huntington. “He expresses a passionate relationship not through examining sex but through examining jealousy, and that is theatrically so much more effective. Sex onstage is nearly always a bit of a downer, whereas jealousy onstage is very, very potent, you know?”
Amid the witty banter of Coward’s plays and films — “Design for Living,” “Brief Encounter,” “Blithe Spirit” — love and passion often endure in the face of reason, convention, mortality, or common sense. To Aitken, Coward’s having been a gay 20th-century writer is an obvious enough explanation for that.
“Don’t forget that homosexuality was illegal,” she says. “And I think the idea of long-term relationships had a sort of magical potency to gay men then because it was so difficult — so difficult to sustain anything. You had to hide and lie. I think that was a kind of Holy Grail. He achieved it, but he achieved it through friendship rather than through love. He kept the longest and most intense friendships alive.”
In “Private Lives,” the heedless lovers are Elyot and Amanda, who have divorced each other and remarried others when they meet by chance on adjoining hotel balconies during their respective honeymoons in the south of France. Their long history of bickering and brawls does not stop them from swooning anew. They ditch their spouses and run off together.
It was 1930 when Coward premiered “Private Lives” in London, playing Elyot opposite his friend and frequent costar, Gertrude Lawrence, as Amanda. The following year, they brought the comedy to Broadway, complete with Laurence Olivier as Amanda’s blustering husband, Victor.
To Coward, Olivier was Larry, and that’s how the actor signed a telegram to the playwright decades later, rejoicing in a revival of “Hay Fever”: “OH MY LOVELY BOY ISNT IT GREAT GREAT GREAT AND LOVELY LOVELY LOVELY GLAMOROUS AND EARTH SHAKING. BRAVOS TO MY BELOVED ONE-AND-ONLY PRETTIEST AND BEST. OH I AM SO HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY DEAREST MOST LOVING AND JOYOUS CONGRATULATIONS FROM YOUR DEVOTED = LARRY.” The telegram, sent from Leeds, hangs on a wall in the library exhibition, courtesy of Olivier’s widow, Joan Plowright. At the top of the sheet of paper is a notation in tiny handwriting: “ ‘It’s the Leeds Post Office I’m worried about’ = Joan.”
The weight of tradition hangs over any production of a play that’s become a part of the canon. But actor James Waterston, who plays Elyot in the Huntington’s “Private Lives,” says he thinks less about Coward having been the first actor to play the role than that he wrote the play in four days while recovering from the flu. As for Aitken’s having played Amanda in a 1980 West End revival, actress Bianca Amato — the Huntington’s Amanda — is deliberately comical in claiming to be unfazed.
“Not intimidating at all,” Amato says, mock-emphatic, before the question can even be asked.
Neither Amato nor Waterston has ever acted in a Coward play before, which makes Aitken's familiarity with his work all the more crucial. According to the Huntington, she has performed in more Coward productions in the West End than any other actress.
“She knows the music of it,” says Waterston, whose father is the actor Sam Waterston. “She’s got it in her bones.”
Aitken claims no special mastery of Coward’s work, but she does say she can tell immediately whether actors understand the signals the playwright has left for them on the page.
“It’s almost like a tune. Some actors are tone-deaf, and [to] the actors that are not tone-deaf, it’s as if he’s laid out a map that you cannot misunderstand,” she says. “If you observe the punctuation and you observe the consonance, he tells you so much about how it should be said. Of course there are choices to be made beyond that, but he’s made so many of them for you in this subliminal way.”
At the library exhibition, Coward’s old Remington typewriter sits, solid and small, in one vitrine. In another is that letter to Albee, typewritten in 1965 from Jamaica. On blue stationery, Coward lays out his thoughts on Albee's “Tiny Alice,” which he has just read. He is complimentary, baffled, crisply critical. Then he seems to call Albee's bluff.
“Expert use of language is to me a perpetual joy,” Coward writes. “You use it expertly all right but, I fear, too self-indulgently. Your duty to me as a playgoer and a reader is to explain whatever truths you are dealing with lucidly and accurately. I refuse to be fobbed off with a sort of metaphysical ‘What’s My Line’!”
It’s a bit of an evisceration, but the older playwright’s warmth toward the younger is nonetheless unmistakable.
“Let me hear from you,” Coward signs off. “Just an ordinary love letter will do.”
Presented by Huntington Theatre Company
At: Boston University Theatre, through June 24. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
The World of Noël Coward
Presented by New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and Noël Coward Foundation
At: New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, 40 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, through Aug. 18. 917-275-6975, www.nypl.org