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February 22-28, 2006

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Private Lives

Photograph by Dana Grover
Sophisiticates: Angie Higgins (left), Doug Brook and Matthew Miyake relive the cocktails and cigarettes era in 'Private Lives.'

Having Words in 'Private'

Northside Theatre Company plays Noel Coward's love games in 'Private Lives'

By Marianne Messina


WHEN EX-HUSBAND and wife Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne spy each other from the adjoining balconies of their respective honeymoon suites, it's second love at first site. That's how the games begin in Noel Coward's Private Lives, a comedy of manners that starts out on the Riviera and ends in the City of Love. Coward wrote the couple as urbane and cosmopolitan in 1930, but these days, the chain-smoking duo ring more like the snobbish elite. At the Northside Theatre production of the play, charmingly drawn-out British accents only add to this effect.

Tall and leggy, as Elyot reports Amanda to be, Angie Higgins poses and postures her way to a perfectly divine Amanda. And as Elyot, seen usually in his smoking jacket, Matthew Miyake provides a wry, debonair counterpart. Both manage to inject their characters with the slightest soupçon of the spoiled child.

When the play opens, Elyot and his new wife, Sibyl (Alisyn Gularte), an obvious mismatch, are on the balcony overlooking the sea—we hear seagulls and the faint sound of waves as the audience stands in for the Mediterranean. Set in a time when divorce made a person somewhat suspect, Sibyl's constant badgering for assurances that Elyot loves her as much as he loved Amanda is understandable. When the couple retires, Amanda and her new husband, Victor (Doug Brook), emerge to engage in the mirror conversation. To Sibyl's question, does he love her the way he loved Amanda, Elyot responds, "More wisely perhaps." To the same question from Victor, Amanda answers, "Much more calmly."

From there, the play is a comic variation on the theme "If they fight like cats and dogs, they must be in love." As Amanda, Higgins was adorable, taking poor Victor on a ride as she went from a sulk to a flirt in the lift of an eyebrow. Doug Brook's plump and dowdy Victor threw into relief Amanda's unquenched thirst for a challenge. Miyake played a perfectly charming cad against the hysterics of Gularte's bleached-blonde cling-on, and he seemed to glide through the drawling and understated British humor with ease.

Coward's offhanded humor should always leave the audience's laughter a beat or two behind the joke, and director Lissa Ferreira Dunham ensured that the delivery remained slippery, fluid and uncompromised. The actors follow through on lines that present an almost irresistible urge to pause for laughter. All these qualities make the first act of the play a delectable treat.

In Act 2, Elyot and Amanda have run away from their new spouses to an upscale apartment in Paris. Where in Act 1, Richard T. Orlando's set design is austerely white and simple with two curtained doorways and a planter/wall between the balconies, the Act 2 set features a cut-glass banister forming a walkway in front of the window; stairs leading to the doors, a piano, a fainting couch, Tiffany sconces on the walls, and other posh trappings.

And yet without the amusing interruptions of the hapless spouses, the humor depends entirely on the repartee between Amanda and Elyot as they repeatedly cycle from love-cooing to bickering in escalating proportions. In spite of a nuanced and expressively choreographed dance number, the production could easily have lost 10 minutes of this couple's banter without a problem. But all's right with the dramatic world once the furniture starts to fly. Private Lives lets us enjoy the smug humor of knowing better than Amanda and Elyot; we laugh because we're wise to their vicious cycle of fighting and loving. But it also carries a nasty undercurrent of recognition that might come back and bite.


Private Lives, a Northside Theatre Company production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through March 12 at Northside Theatre, 848 E. William St., San Jose. Tickets are $12/$15. (408.288.7820)


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