Love may be fickle, but the latest production of Noël Coward’s “Private Lives” at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater remains true to the show’s themes of passion and fidelity in a portrayal that is sure to delight and amuse theatergoers.
The initial action revolves around a most ironic and apparently unpleasant twist of fate: former husband and wife Elyot (Tom Hewitt) and Amanda (Shannon Cochran) settle into a picturesque French hotel for their second honeymoon — with their respective new spouses. Unwittingly placed in adjacent rooms with a shared veranda, the aged divorcees encounter each other for the first time in five years since their split. After struggling in vain to convince their spouses to leave the hotel immediately, Elyot and Amanda accidentally reunite on the outside terrace. The two begin reminiscing about their three-year marriage over champagne cocktails as their worst fear is realized: the embers of their old passion are rekindled almost instantly.
Tempted away from their new spouses by this newly revived sexual chemistry, the couple escapes to Amanda’s apartment in Paris, but it is only a matter of time before the arguments and emotional angst that destroyed their marriage rears its ugly head. Elyot is shocked to learn of Amanda’s sexual exploits since their divorce and resents any mention of her debonair new husband Victor (Will Kempe), while Amanda makes passive aggressive comments about Elyot’s young but simple-minded new wife Sybil (Christian Corp). Indeed, it is only a matter of time before their new spouses track them down, and they unwittingly burst in on the lovers tearing the apartment — and each other — apart.
The real crux of this play is not the physical farce behind it or even the moral implications of infidelity and broken trust between new spouses. What drives the action in Coward’s comedy of human passion is just that — human passion in all of its inexplicable, complicated wonder. Elyot and Amanda face a classic lovers’ dilemma: they truly can’t be with or without one another. Passion and fond remembrances continually bring them together, while petty jealousy and bickering perpetually drive them apart. It’s difficult for the audience to decide by turns whether or not the couple really “belongs” together in the end. Better than any other line in the show, Amanda’s sardonic mid-fight comment “we’re in love alright” seems to suggest that the two would not be fighting so bitterly if they did not care deeply about one another.
Hewitt and Cochran do a laudable job bringing the script to life, embracing Elyot and Amanda’s moments of violent rage and all-consuming passion with equal humanity. Their witty sparring combined with physical farce staged by director Kim Rubinstein makes for an amusing spectacle but the audience is always aware that this violence is a very real manifestation of their actual love for one another. In fact, it is not so much their faults that irritate one another as their strengths which challenge each other’s forceful personalities.
Hewitt brings a flippant sense of humor to his part that makes it easy for audiences to understand how he can simultaneously charm and irritate his costar. His repeated exhortations to “savor the moment, darling” alternately satisfy and agitate Amanda, who feels extreme guilt over having abandoned Victor and is troubled by the transient nature of her happiness with Elyot. Cochran, on the other hand, captures the perfect balance between Amanda’s regal sophistication and unrepentant sensuality. When Elyot resentfully declares that it doesn’t suit women to be promiscuous, Cochran’s icy reply that “it doesn’t suit men for women to be promiscuous” is delivered with just the right mix of poise and self-righteousness. Her confident yet defiant portrayal of Amanda is at its best in the concluding encounter with Victor and Sybil, where she confronts the other three characters while trying to maintain the façade of gracious host with comic results.
If the play’s action calls the strength and reliability of relationships into doubt, its conclusion raises even more questions. Victor and Sybil’s sudden brawl suggests that strength and violence of emotion are not solely limited to romance, while Elyot and Amanda’s retreat makes the audience wonder how long they will stay together before breaking into another verbal sparring match. Regardless of whether or not the right couples end up together, Coward’s play remains as witty and dynamic as its central couple.