"I think very few people are completely normal deep down in their private lives." Thatís one of the subversive propositions that NoŽl Coward made sure to hide in plain sight when he wrote
Private Lives, his most famous work, in 1929. His comedies are as aggressively about nothing as
Seinfeld claimed to be. They brim with bubbly banter and flee from ideas like Polynesian natives from an active volcano. And yet by depicting the crisp encounters of naughty socialities and the infantile antics of lovable upper-class Brits, Coward conveyed a sophisticated understanding of the role of masks in the performance of life, love, and sexuality. He was, as his biographer John Lahr points out, "a gay man who passed for a heterosexual matinee idol," and he knew and accepted the very good reasons people might choose shallowness and subterfuge as strategies to survive the vicissitudes of existence.
"Laugh at the moralists -- flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light," says Elyot Chase, the leading man of
Private Lives, a role that Coward played himself when the show premiered and that is performed by Alan Rickman in the current Broadway revival. He also says, to his leading lady Amanda Prynne (Lindsay Duncan), "Letís be superficial, and pity the poor philosophers." These lines stand out as hilarious anti-manifestoes. To take them seriously would be to miss the point. Very Oscar Wilde. Like
The Importance of Being Earnest, Private Lives is not about something, it
is something -- a sleek, efficient, comedy of manners, a minuet in unminced words.
The setup is classic. After a brief drunken brawl of a marriage and five years of blissful divorce, Elyot and Amanda are on honeymoon with much less combustible new spouses when they find themselves in adjoining suites at a hotel on the Riviera. Beginning with Amanda and Elyotís outraged discovery of one anotherís presence and ending with them running off to Paris together, the first act is as masterful a patch of screwball comedy as anyone as ever penned. Acts two and three are a bit more contrived in their plot machinations but still hilarious. Suffice it to say that, despite their solemn vows to the contrary, these ultra-modern lovebirds could no more keep from quarreling than Lucy Ricardo could keep from breaking any promise she made to Ricky.
The repartee in Private Lives is so polished that it could practically deliver, laugh at, and applaud itself. Luckily, in this version, it has good help. The occasion for the revival, which originated in Londonís West End, is a reunion of the stars and director of the 1987 production of
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Christopher Hamptonís adaptation of the 18th century French novel about two aristocrats who quell their boredom with scheming and seduction. Itís thrilling to have actors as sly, wicked, and sexy as Duncan and Rickman tackling Coward. She invests Amanda with a feline power that is glamorous and enigmatic at the same time. He steals the show, though. You just canít get enough of his mobile mug and scathing understatement. By all reports straight and happily married, he nonetheless has the kind of suave, queeny hauteur any NoŽl Coward manquť would kill for.
The Advocate, June 25, 2002