hell with love: (l-r) Christopher Innvar and Gretchen
Egolf in Private Lives.
NoËl Coward, directed by Julianne Boyd
Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through Aug.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.