GLOUCESTER — Nearly a century after “Private Lives” first opened, Noël Coward’s precisely plotted romantic comedy shows little signs of wear or tear. And although the Gloucester Stage Company production takes a while to find its footing, patience is rewarded with the ensemble’s escalating antics.
Coward’s dramatic structure is layered like the most delicate cake, and although it’s perfectly fine to simply enjoy the farcical fun, director Diego Arciniegas has opened the door to a deeper peek into relationships that look so normal on the surface but require so much more to make love last.
The play opens at a resort in Deauville, France, where Elyot (Gunnar Manchester) and Sibyl (Serenity S’rae) are enjoying the first day of their honeymoon. By chance, Elyot’s ex-wife Amanda (Katie Croyle) and her new husband, Victor (Stephen Shore), are in the adjacent room and share a balcony. As Coward collects delicious details about each newly married couple’s relationship, with both Sibyl and Victor seemingly obsessed with the partner who preceded them, the inevitable reunion between Elyot and Amanda takes place.
Act I requires the repressed emotional enthusiasm that has become an upper-class British stereotype, combined with the crisp, fast-paced banter that is Coward’s signature. Arciniegas almost sculpts the action of the play, providing his ensemble with carefully crafted positioning while allowing them to explore their characters’ distinctive idiosyncrasies. The tempo starts out a little slow, and lacks the crisp timing Coward’s witty, sardonic banter needs to really dance, but once Elyot dares to leap over to Amanda’s balcony, the energy onstage begins to crackle.
Acts II and III take place in Amanda’s Parisian apartment, where she and Elyot have holed up for their return to romance, delighting in each other’s company while avoiding a pending confrontation with their newly shorn spouses. But it only takes a few minutes before the magnetic attraction that draws them together — Amanda calls it “our chemical what do you call ‘ems” — also pushes them violently apart. Anything and everything can spark an argument, from the volume on the gramophone to whether or not adders snap or sting. That physical connection, although played out with hilarious athleticism, also provides entrée to this pair’s deeper attraction to each other’s intelligence, world view, and astute understanding that “flippancy is a necessity because life is too serious to be taken seriously.”
Two of the more tender moments that can get glossed over in other productions occur when Amanda sings to Elyot (shyly, hesitantly) and when Elyot sings while playing the piano (wonderfully played by Manchester). They are moments of vulnerability among these two kindred souls who do everything they can to avoid revealing their weak spots.
As Amanda, Croyle balances a prim veneer of respectability and charm over her wild, rule-breaking heart. She deliciously sinks her teeth into Amanda’s spoiled rich girl attitude through her facial expressions, pursing her lips and allowing the stillness to contrast with the aggressive moves she makes when angered. She insists she chose Victor so she could settle down to a quiet, peaceful life, but she makes it immediately obvious to the audience, if not to herself, that this will never work.
As Elyot, Manchester becomes sleeker and more sophisticated as the play moves forward. He and Croyle have wonderful chemistry together, so that glances exchanged across the Parisian apartment living room feel intimate and romantic.
Shore and S’rae, portraying the catalysts for the primary couple’s reunion, deliver the goods while giving their characters some much-needed personality. Shore infuses the much-put-upon Victor with quirks that provide him with nerdy charm. When he and Elyot assume ridiculous fighting stances before a silly brawl, there’s a tension between hilarity and fear that one of them might actually get hurt. S’rae makes Sibyl appropriately immature and needy, only to reveal she has sturdier stuff in Act II. Her own confrontation with Victor is worth the price of admission alone.
One of the unseen stars of the show is fight and intimacy director Angie Jepson, who builds out a series of clashes between both couples that are elegant, ferocious, and so fluid they manage to appear both balletic and aggressive at once.
While “Private Lives” can be tossed off as a simple romantic farce, it’s to Arciniegas and his ensemble’s credit that there’s more to these private lives than meets the eye.
By Noël Coward. Directed by Diego Arciniegas. At Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester. Through June 25. Tickets $15-$67. gloucesterstage.com/private-lives
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.