Noël Coward’s Private Lives is back for its third L.A.-area production in a scant six months, but only the first to present Coward’s still-fresh-at-72 romcom classic up close and personal—adroitly directed by Jules Aaron and spiffily acted by a topnotch cast of five at Burbank’s 98-seat Grove Theatre Center.

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 (Lenny Von Dohlen) and Amanda Prynne (Stasha Surdyke), 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 (Annie Abrams) and Victor (Jeff Witzke). 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 (Angie Light) looks on in Gallic horror and disbelief.

Amanda Prynne has long been a dream role of its producer-star Surdyke, one which the actress brings to radiant life a performance that is at once delectably dry and delightfully sophisticated, with Surdyke’s Act Two vocalizing proving an added treat. Silver fox Von Dohlen matches Surdyke in dryness and sophistication, scenes between the two positively crackling with romantic, sexual chemistry. As Sibyl, Abrams is a wide-eyed, Kewpie Doll-cute charmer opposite a deliciously stiff-shirted Witzke’s Victor. Only an occasionally flat American “æ” taking the place of the broader British “ah” in words like “can’t” and “rather” gets in the way of the cast’s otherwise letter-perfect English accents, and a very funny Light does quite well with Louise’s tout-en-français role. (At the performance reviewed, there were some occasional, brief line glitches by cast members, perhaps due to coming back on a Thursday following several days off.)

Scenic designer JC Gafford has created a simple but effective hotel balcony set for Act One that transforms into an elegantly furnished Paris flat—including baby grand piano—for Acts Two and Three thanks to some very hardworking stagehands. J. Kent Inasy’s excellent lighting design works in tandem with the cast’s performances in setting and heightening moods. Max Kinberg’s first-rate sound design mixes clever effects and 78-rpm song hits of the ‘30s, along with providing a mostly authentic piano sound for Von Dohlen’s mimed tickling of the keys. As for Shon LeBlanc’s costumes, it will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the master designer’s work that they are superb period creations each and every one. Diane Martinous gets top marks for her hair and wig design, particularly Surdyke’s curly do, which I was convinced was the actress’s actual hair. Kudos to property master Kevin Williams for the terrific ‘30s magazines, ’78 records, and cigarette lighters. (Non-smokers need not worry about second-hand smoke of any kind, as the actors employ unlit ciggies.) Elyot and Amanda’s knock-down-drag-out looks real indeed thanks to Brian Danner’s fight choreography, and dance choreographer Allison Bibicoff adds some snazzy Fred and Ginger moments.

Brigid O’Brien is stage manager and Eric Heidenthal assistant stage manager. Kyle Nudo and Christopher Trela are co-producers for Table For Two productions.

Private Lives may well be the grandfather of contemporary romantic comedies, but for a grandpapa, Coward’s 1930 gem remains amazingly moth-ball free. Gaily sophisticated and sophisticatedly gay, Private Lives wears its years remarkably well indeed.

GTC Burbank, 1111-b West Olive Avenue, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
February 23, 2012

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