By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

Stage Door Players is currently running Sir Noel Coward’s most famous comedy of manners, “Private Lives,” through Feb. 8.

Written in 1930, the old chestnut still has plenty of sparkle and fire; in fact, there’s an almost desperate gaiety about it, as though the world knew the clock was ticking before the Nazi regime reared its ugly head. “Cabaret,” you know, is set in this same period. The Roaring 20’s have just passed.

Legend has it that Coward wrote the outline for “Private Lives” in two weeks in Shanghai, as he recovered from the flu. He wrote the actual play in four days, although he later polished it a bit.

The premise is simple and is built for fun: Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne (Mark Kincaid and Tess Malis Kincaid), formerly married, now divorced, are having their honeymoon at a seaside resort in France—with their new spouses, Sibyl and Victor (Rachel Garner and Joe Sykes). Are you following?

Still more fun, Elyot and Amanda discover that they have adjoining rooms. They discover each other’s presence (oh yes, they were married three years, have been divorced five); more important, they find that the embers of their love still burn—along with familiar annoyances.

So where does this leave Sibyl and Victor, both of whom have been inordinately curious about their spouses’ first spouse? In the middle of a brewing hurricane, not to give away too much. Before you can say “mon amour,” Elyot and Amanda have run off together to her flat in Paris, with their young spouses in hot pursuit. And in “high society” plays like this, we certainly need a blasé French maid, and we have one in in Dina Shadwell’s Louise, who has seen it all.

Coward was nothing if not savvy in theatre matters; he was a master of sparkling dialogue, but his plays had been called “brittle, thin, and inconsequential.” He knew he needed star power, and since he knew everybody, it wasn’t difficult to get his pal Gertrude Lawrence for the original London production; also a young actor named Laurence Olivier. In later years such luminaries as Tallulah Bankhead, John Gielgud, and much later Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor played in “Private Lives.”

In Atlanta few actors have been more lauded than real-life husband and wife Mark and Tess Malis Kincaid, and it’s a joy (not to mention excellent casting by Director Robert Egizio) to see them own the stage as Elyot and Amanda. With relish, wit, and wry sophistication they plunge into Coward’s world, and we, the audience, are the beneficiaries. Without actors of their talent and polish, it’s easy (we must face facts here) for this 85-year-old play to seem dated and even vapid.

But with the Kincaids and their charming, attractive partners in crime, Ms. Garner and Mr. Sykes, who bring a winsome naiveté to Sibyl and Victor, the show zips along with zest. There’s more broad, physical comedy than you may remember, especially from Elyot and Amanda; lovely direction by Mr. Egizio. I also applaud set design/scenic artist Chuck Welcome’s fine work, as well as Jane Kroessig’s costumes.

So if these cold days have you down, I’ll offer an admonition from a song by the legendary Mr. Coward himself: “When you feel your song is orchestrated wrong, why should you prolong your stay? When the wind and the weather blow your dreams sky-high, sail away—sail away—sail away!”

For more information, visit stagedoorplayers.net.

 

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.