Most playwrights would settle for a love triangle. A good three-sided love affair can usually stir up most of the requisite conflict to keep the tension alive on stage. In Private Lives, however, Noel Coward goes for the dreaded love trapezoid.
Billed as "an intimate comedy," Coward's script features two pairs of newlyweds who quickly reveal themselves as anything but intimate. The most difficult device for the audience to overcome before suspending their disbelief is the degree to which the two couples do not know each other. Elyot and Amanda, the two main characters in separate marriages, quickly prove that they can no more maintain a facade than they can hold their tongues. They can't even hold a grudge.
The conflict lies in the two couples' adjacent honeymoon suites. Amanda's new husband Victor is every bit as obsessed with her previous marriage as Elyot's new bride Sibyl is consumed with learning about his ex-wife. We quickly understand that Elyot and Amanda were married to each other and that this dual wedding night is destined to be filled with fireworks of an untraditional sort. Indeed, Elyot's confession to his new wife that "I should like to cut off your head with a meat ax" is not exactly pillow talk. How do you build on that kind of sentiment?
Coward not only builds on his opening repartee, he subdivides and develops it. His sophisticated wit demands that the cast raise themselves to its level, and under David Hastings' direction, the company meets the challenge. The four principal actors transport the audience to another world with a seamless uniformity of style. Though Coward may evoke staid characters in conventional drawing-room settings, Hastings leads his cast to bold interpretations that immediately imprint themselves on the audience, transcending the artifice of the stage and bringing us into their world of schizophrenic manners and explosive passion.
Victor and Sibyl could easily be lost in the shadows of their more combustible companions, but David Rasmussen in particular fills Victor's character with an oxymoronic mixture of mundane sparkle. He creates a character passionate about complacency, a big and brassy performance brimming with confidence as he crafts a magnificent milquetoast of a man.
Rasmussen's performance goes the farthest in a dimension the whole cast handles adeptly, the task of turning body language into characterization. From gestures and movement to facial expression and posture, the actors ensure that every tic and flinch is in character or perhaps more adequately, that their immersion in character creates an entirely new language of physicality.
The key to the production is the unique chemistry ignited whenever Elyot and Amanda interact. John Barber and Jane Fromme rise to the task with apparent ease, slyly slipping from sophisticated dialogue into eruptions of violence and rage.
Barber is best when bandying Coward's flippant punch lines about the stage, and it is a credit to his range that he can toss off aspersions, like "certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs," back it up with a backhand to the face of his loved one and still manage to bring Elyot back into the apple of her eye.
Fromme's performance is even stronger, the unflinching anchor in a sea of insanity. A team of therapists could set up camp in Amanda's psyche, trying to understand this formidable woman's attraction to the insufferable spouses she chooses to endure. Fromme reaches beyond the easy choices of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship and creates a character fueled by passion, hungry for the heat of flames licking up against her but in control enough to keep from being consumed in fire.