Five of the best and brightest of the Hermosa Beach Playhouse’s unofficial “resident company” of stars have reunited under artistic director Stephanie A. Coltrin’s directorial baton to bring Noël Coward’s Private Lives to the South Bay Cities. Who could ask for anything more?

Not when there’s Scenie-winning Breakthrough Actor Of The Year Patrick Vest playing opposite not one but three of his leading ladies—Suzanne Dean, Katherine to his Petruchio in The Taming Of The Shrew; Barbara Jean Urich, Corie to his Paul in Barefoot in The Park; and Kimberly Patterson, his costar in both. Add to this foursome Cylan Brown, Vest’s fellow leading man in Moonlight And Magnolias and Art, and you have a cast that any Equity house would be proud to call its own.

As thoroughly contemporary a piece of theater as could be imagined at the time of its 1930 debut, Private Lives has aged gracefully into a bright and witty period comedy, a look back at a gayer, more sophisticated era when gay meant merry and sophistication was a way of life. Its four lead characters may not always mind their manners, but at least they know that there are manners to be minded, in their public if not their private lives.

Elyot Chase (Vest) and Amanda Prynne (Dean), husband and wife for three years and divorced now for three, have both recently remarried and, coincidentally, just happen to be spending their honeymoons in adjoining hotel suites on the French Riviera, though neither yet realizes this in their initial scenes with respective newlywed spouses Sibyl (Urich) and Victor (Brown). Amanda tells Victor that her marriage to Elyot was “like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle,” and Sibyl reminds Elyot that Amanda lost him “with her violent tempers and goings on.” Clearly these more sensible second marriages are an improvement on their volatile first ones, right?

Or maybe not.

Before long, the formerly mated lovebirds have escaped their recently hitched bride and groom for Amanda’s Paris love nest and are once again lovey-dovey, that is until their persistently rocky relationship has once again turned them into a pair of battling swans, exchanging insults and blows as a bewildered French maid (Patterson) looks on in Gallic horror and disbelief.

Coltrin directs with her trademark panache, and considering the history she and her Private Lives cast share, it’s no wonder that magic gets made on the Hermosa Beach Playhouse stage. Strokes may be a bit more broadly drawn than in some previous Private Lives, but with their tiptop mastery of comic timing and the physical comedy that’s part and parcel of Coward’s script, it all works to hilarious perfection. The fabulous Vest and the divine Dean ignite the same kind of sparks they did as Petruchio and the shrew he tamed, though in this case, very little taming seems to be going on, both characters (and actors) giving as good as they get. Brown and Urich provide tiptop support, Victor’s stuffiness and Sibyl’s perkiness in perfect counterpoint in the hands of these expert thesps. Patterson, who doubles as stage manager, makes the very most of every Louise moment, and when all five actors are on stage and pillows, 78 rpm records, and croissants start flying, watch out.

Christopher Beyries has once again designed a pair of splendid sets, Act One’s flower-festooned adjoining balconies and Act Two & Three’s elegant Paris flat. Christa Armendariz’s period costumes Ric Zimmerman’s highly effective lighting both get top marks, and Kevin Goold’s excellent sound design includes some just right 30s-era tunes. As to whether it’s Vest himself ticking the ivories, or some Goold magic, I’ve been informed by Vest that “a magician never reveals his secrets.” April Metcalf’s hair and wig design score points as well.

With Noël Coward’s much imitated (but never equaled) 1930 comedy classic, the Hermosa Beach Playhouse scores yet another bulls-eye. Brought to zesty life by a couldn’t-be-better cast, Private Lives hardly shows its age. In fact, eighty-one years old has rarely seemed so young.

Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 170 Pier Avenue, Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach.

–Steven Stanley
October 26, 2011
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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