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To hell with love: (l-r) Christopher Innvar and Gretchen Egolf in Private Lives.

This Damned Moonlight

By Meisha Rosenberg

Private Lives

By NoËl Coward, directed by Julianne Boyd

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through Aug. 24

Playwright, actor and composer Noël Coward, with his sophisticated wit and impeccable sense of timing, was a master of capturing the car-crash nature of romance. Case in point: The 1945 movie Brief Encounter (based on Coward’s play, Still Life) to my mind is one of the most searing, poignant movies about romantic love ever made. So it was with elevated expectations that I attended the Barrington Stage Company’s production of Private Lives, Coward’s comedy about an ex-husband and ex-wife falling for each other again. And I wasn’t disappointed: With its excellent set and a standout performance by Gretchen Egolf as Amanda Prynne, Private Lives satisfies as an entertaining comedy about the painful dynamics of relationships. While not all performances were up to Egolf’s level, there is much to enjoy as sparks fly between lovers who know how to torment each other with panache.

Running into her ex-husband Elyot Chase (Christopher Innvar) honeymooning at the same hotel, Prynne says about their failed romance: “Selfishness, cruelty, hatred, possessiveness, petty jealousy. All those qualities came out in us just because we loved each other.” She concludes, with cheery swing-era flippancy, “To hell with love.” It’s the perfect come-on for jaded sophisticates, and it’s not hard to see why their new mates don’t fit the bill: Sibyl (Rebecca Brooksher), the new Mrs. Chase, is simpering and naive, while Victor Prynne (Mark H. Dold) is a more “calm” lover who wears a bowtie to match his inflated sense of gentlemanly prerogative.

Coward’s smart writing has as much to say about the tangled mess we make of romance as modern playwrights Pinter and Beckett do.

And the excellent period set designed by Karl Eigsti is a reflection of the existential predicament of these upper-crust characters. The honeymooning Brits appear on identical, neighboring balconies at a French hotel, where striped awnings, planters with clipped hedges, and sweet wrought-iron tables serve as the trappings (literally) of romance. The newlywed bickering culminates in the inevitable discovery of who rented the room next door. Physical humor is part of the fun, and Private Lives is as indebted to farce as much as it is to a history of dramatic irony going back to Sophocles. The fates of our hero and heroine are sealed before they say “You’re looking lovely in this damned moonlight.” In Scene 2, in an art-deco apartment in Paris, the furniture becomes battle gear, with the couch a shield and the gramophone a weapon of psychological warfare.

Of course, Amanda and Elyot also have their bright moments. Their adorable silk pajamas make them seem like Nick and Nora, and Amanda wears a series of dresses that couldn’t get more stunning in that inimitable 1930s way. Amanda’s style contrasts to Sibyl’s more conservatively feminine dresses, thanks to Elizabeth Flauto’s expert costuming.

Egolf completely inhabits her role as Amanda, a mercurial modern woman, whereas Innvar’s Elyot was a little uneven, sometimes hitting the right notes, but sometimes seeming ponderous (Noël Coward played Elyot in 1931). Brooksher and Dold seldom vary from hysteria (Sibyl) or priggishness (Victor). Unfortunately, their flatness made it hard to buy the reversal at the end (admittedly, some of this might have been their imperfect upper-class British accents). Another weakness: the second act, which was too long even for The New York Times reviewer back in 1931, here also dragged on longer than necessary.

Amanda and Elyot engage in out-and-out combat, and thankfully, Boyd’s directing and the fight choreography by Michael Burnet allow the audience to feel aghast at their behavior without the urge to call the domestic violence hotline. While domestic abuse was frowned upon in the 1930s, it wasn’t meant to be the flashpoint issue of the play; the audience knows this is one couple who won’t benefit from intervention. In this high-quality production, these troubled sophisticates are just as recognizable today as they were when cocktail hour was a given and divorce was a novelty, and the games are just as devilishly entertaining.

Waiting for Meaning

Waiting for Godot

By Samuel Beckett, directed by Anders Cato

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 23

Of all playwrights, Beckett is probably the most insistent that productions of his works adhere to his specifications for setting, sounds, lighting effects, props, costumes, timing, actions and stage directions. In other words, Beckett considered these directions and designs as essential to the play as the dialogue. That Beckett was a minimalist makes each of his directives even more significant.

Change the environment in which the words are spoken, and the effect of the words is changed. Beckett observed, “I’m no intellectual. All I am is feeling.” And feeling is highly determined by mood and tone, two factors that are largely governed by the aforesaid design elements.

It has always amazed me that directors credit Beckett with being a genius, but refuse to accept that part of the genius lay in his design and stage directions. They argue that denying the freedom to interpret the play according to their original concepts makes the play a museum piece. Thus the production becomes more about the director than the original author’s intent.

Can changes only to the visual and auditory environment in which the play is set, really ruin a time-tested classic? You bet. Witness the BTF production in which such changes by Anders Cato and company completely destroy Waiting for Godot.

Beckett describes a country road with a tree and a mound. The time is evening—specifically, twilight turning to night. Strongly implied is a landscape of desolation, a muckheap of death and decay. A surrounding darkness.

Cato and his set designer, Lee Savage, present a white room with a door up-center, and two entrances/exits down right and left, with dirt in them that spreads partially onto the white floor, which is painted to suggest floorboards. A trapezoidal skylight reveals a blue sky until the moon clumsily rises. For all but several minutes, brilliant white light bounces, distractingly, off the surfaces. A tree with a burlap-covered root ball and a rock, too small to accommodate an actor trying to sleep in an important fetal position, complete it.

Beckett’s poetic atmosphere, with his two uncertain tramps contemplating an isolate landscape against growing darkness, is fully lost. The white walls, meant to contain the action, expand and draw attention away from the central characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who are waiting for an unknown character named Godot. It is more evocative of a sterile Kubrickian room in a hospital or asylum. The attempt to remind us that this is a play on a stage is an awkward eyesore that changes Beckett’s minimalist setting into something too rarefied.

One is left waiting for Beckett, and the review could end here. But for the record, here are my notes regarding other elements of the play. Forgive the Beckettian brevity necessitated by space limitations and a desire to flee the memory of this debacle.

Vladimir and Estragon: too young, too clean, insufficiently pathetic or tragic, too clumsy/forced in comic business. In second act, David Adkins’ Vladimir more fully realized. As face becomes sweatier and drawn, Adkins almost conveys the tragicomedy that Beckett intended. Has touching moments.

Stephen DeRosa’s grinning and winking Estragon: Awful. Doesn’t endure a believable minute of misery. Little suggests gravitational pull on Estragon’s tired frame. Outer coat and his ragged trouser cuffs do more toward suggesting character.

According to program, intent is to deliver American production of Godot. Stupid idea, given the play’s universality and absence of any event on American soil to provoke such a play. Costumes suggest Florida or California. Not Beckett’s chill, postwar muckheap.

David Schramm’s Pozzo mostly succeeds. Loud and ostentatious, yet reveals self-doubt. No bald pate described by Beckett. His servant, Lucky, lacks long white hair. Instead, a goth-punk drug addict as played by Randy Harrison. Not Beckett’s enigma. Vladimir and Estragon upstaged.

Silences not long enough. Ping-pong exchanges not fast enough. The rhythms and tempos off much of the time. No internal music.

Beckett’s sly references to audience become pandering, direct addresses to audience. Result: inclusion of audience destroys overall sense of isolation. One of the reasons Beckett protested theater-in-the-round staging.

Some new stage business works well, but hit or miss. Results in choppy sequences. Poor coherence and overall unity.

Productions such as this do Beckett a greater disservice than not doing him at all. Audiences are robbed of his rare, transporting, touching and ultimately, heroic meditation on waiting for meaning—while being faced with the very good possibility that one’s earthly existence is merely absurd.

—Ralph Hammann


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