Some plays need to look as if they're being performed with absolutely no effort whatsoever. They must seem merely tossed off. That's the fun of them. Perhaps the most famous example is Private Lives, the jazzy romantic comedy Noel Coward wrote in 1930 and that in the 83 years since its West End and Broadway bows has probably become the trend-setting chap's most produced work of artless art.
Possibly the three-act play's gossamer quality stems from the manner in which it was written. Aboard a cruise ship in the late '20s, the madly successful Coward gave himself over to thinking about a diversion in which he and best pal Gertrude Lawrence could indulge themselves. As he reported at the time, the piece came to him complete over one of those balmy at-sea nights.
The beckoning opus was something he must have figured -- since he knew the breadth and depth of both their talents -- they could perform, uh, effortlessly. So in three days (one for each act?) he put Private Lives down on paper. Within months he and she were delighting audiences eager to escape from those dreary 20th-century blues. He was also depositing 3200 pounds into his bank account weekly -- an amount that must have afforded him the opportunity to buy as many as he wanted of the turtleneck shirts he was popularizing.
But while vast amounts of energy are needed for eight Private Lives performances every seven days, effortlessness remains the sine qua non of any Private Lives production. It's only achieved, however, by actors possessed of two other sine qua nons -- charm and, as the comedy's Amanda describes it, "jagged sophistication."
Performers lacking those innate ingredients -- the sort of personality traits that can't be taught -- had best steer clear of the Coward classic, which is a warning unnecessary to aim at Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor, who star in the Chichester Festival Theatre production, which was recently brought to London's West End and is scheduled to be shown on movie screens internationally this Wednesday (December 11) and again on February 6, 2014 (see here for participating theaters.)
In a well-nigh perfect treatment directed by Jonathan Kent and designed by Anthony Ward, Stephens as Elyot Chase and Chancellor as Amanda Prynne throw themselves with a marvelous blend of offhandedness and seriousness into the roles of two blaringly unconventional lovers who can't live with each other and can't live without each other. As written by Coward, they're undoubtedly dramatic literature's most prominent can't-live-with-can't-live-without couple since William Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick.
In the tall, willowy Chancellor's case, the form of jagged sophistication takes on a slightly manic edge, a devil-may-care affect that suggests Amanda possesses an undercurrent of genuine devil-does-care. As for Stephens, he brings to a soigné veneer a strong hint that he has heavy emotional desires calling out to be satisfied. For theater-goers who remember the revival of Private Lives in which over 40 years ago his parents Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith appeared, there's an added delight in watching him echo their expertise.
(Stephens has said that Smith, who knew Coward well, did pass along a few tips she'd had from the master. When I interviewed him a decade or so ago, he told me his mother's most valuable piece of general advice on acting was to see as much theater as possible.)
In the play, which is about a folie á deux, of course, the actors have to form a tight team. These two do. Their many love scenes are steamy, the wrangling of two people whose sex drive is in overdrive. The numerous sequences during which they bicker with increasing intensity -- to the point of physical swatting each other (fight director Paul Benzing was kept very busy) -- are equally as intense, if not more so.
The respective new spouses Sybil and Victor, whom Elyot and Amanda jilt when they discover themselves honeymooning in adjoining hotel suites, are played by Anne-Louise Plowman and Anthony Calf. In a set-up where Coward pits the anti-conventional against the conventional -- with no doubt which two will prevail -- the sweetly pretty Plowman (Mrs. Stephens) hits all the correct insipid notes, and the corporately built Calf does bluster very well indeed. Sue Kelvin registers as the no-nonsense French retainer Louise, who thinks all four of the warring lovers are, in her words, "idiots."
Eighty years on, it may be that a play initially received as a romp has acquired a slightly different look and feel. (Ward's second- and third-act depiction of a luxurious bohemian Montaigne Avenue flat with piano is spot-on.) Now -- at least as Kent has directed it and Stephens and Chancellor play it -- a streak of desperation runs through Coward's roundelay, the nagging sense that against an economic downturn, there's a compulsion to be helplessly merry, despite all.
Incidentally, there's a definitely sour note struck by Elyot's declaration that "certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs." Even though Amanda gives as good as she gets, the sentiment no longer has the blithe air it may have had then. The laughter it evokes, if any, is of the nervous variety. But it remains one of the script's many quotable quips, and so isn't likely to be excised now or ever. It's possible, on the other hand, that all the smoking Elyot and Amanda do is minimized in other productions when not called for by stage directions.
Sometime ago, John Lahr described Coward as "Industry in cap and bells." The cap and bells he and his interpreters wear here couldn't be brighter or ring more crisply. "Let's be superficial," Amanda exclaims when on her hotel balcony when she and ex-husband Elyot reunite after five years. With Private Lives, Coward illustrates just how unexpectedly deep the superficial can be.