Noel Coward was witty, erudite, classy and provocative. His playwriting gifts continue to make Private Lives — a play he wrote in four days 80 years ago — compelling.
Colonial Players of Annapolis’ choice to begin its 61st season, Private Lives displays classic Coward irreverence towards marriage and social conventions. The plot line is simple: Sibyl and Elyot are on their honeymoon, as are Victor and Amanda. The complicating factor? Elyot and Amanda used to be married to each other. When they discover each other at the same hotel, old feelings are rekindled and the new spouses are jettisoned for a second attempt at marital bliss. Complications ensue, and Coward takes the opportunity to reveal the private lives of his characters and through them to comment on social conventions.
A brief reminder that the script is 80 years old: Spousal battering must have been a funnier topic in 1930. Today it is just creepy; though not a major theme or focus of the play, it does come up several times.
In terms of the Colonial Players’ production, opening night was a bit ragged. But once the cast settles into their roles, the Coward wit will take over. What is interesting about the production is the mixture of American and British acting styles. They are so distinctly different that instead of being a mistake or oversight, it may have been an intentional choice by director Richard Wade.
British acting styles rely on vocal inflection and intonation, making the language star of the show, rather than concentrating on physicality; American acting styles tend to focus on motivation and facial and body language to convey meaning. In this production, the original married couple, Elyot (Pat Reynolds) and Amanda (Zarah Rautell) are fully in British mode. Their physical bearing conveys class, their modulated voices carry Coward’s script and they seem fully at home in this art deco-ish drawing room comedy.
By contrast, Sibyl (Shirley Panek) and Victor (Lawrence Griffin) are very American in their performance style. They internalize their emotions (something easy and lovely to observe in the close proximity of theater in the round), and physically they literally throw themselves into their parts.
In two short scenes there is a fifth character, the maid Louise, played hilariously by Meg Venton as a French terror no one ever wants to encounter.
As Elyot, Pat Reynolds is debonair, elegant and thoroughly convincing as an upper-crust Englishman. As Amanda, Zarah Rautell is ebullient and effusive, yet always self-contained, a fascinating acting contradiction that she pulls off.
As Sibyl, Shirley Panek is a lost newlywed whose world crumbles when her new spouse abandons her. She really makes the audience care for her. As Victor, Lawrence Griffin portrays the other abandoned newlywed more in a spluttering, dazed manner that brings home the laughs.
Private Lives rewards its audiences with elegance, wit and a bit of an askew view of the world. That makes it just the right twist for theater in 360 degrees.
Playing thru October 9 at 8pm Th-Sa; 2pm Su; 7:30pm Sept. 26 at 108 East St., Annapolis. $20; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.cplayers.com.