`Private Lives' at Dorset is up for laughs

Revival of Noel Coward's 1930s comedy of manners kicks off new season

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DORSET — Dorset Theatre Festival opened its 2019 season in grand summer style with a romping classic revival of Noel Coward's 1930s comedy of manners, "Private Lives."

Artistic director Dina Janis loves to promote this play — which runs through July 6 and is directed by the inimitable Evan Yionoulis — by saying it is "full of wit, great fun for actors and designers, and sophisticatedly funny," and she would be spot on.

Janis must have sensed that with all the serious work in recent years at DTF on new play development and the emphasis on premieres, her company needed a clever yet still light play on its slate this summer, well, because laughter — especially regarding the goofiness of love — never gets old.

Director Yionoulis knows something of this, have piloted DTF's production of Alan Ayckbourn's "Table Manners," another comedy in a similar mold to those of Coward's, even though set in the 1970s.

We find ourselves at a 1930s French coastal hotel, and later in a Parisian flat. Passion, laughter, romance, anger and love are the premise for a battle of the sexes as divorced couple, Amanda Prynne (Rachel Pickup) and Elyot Chase (Shawn Fagan), find themselves accidentally flung together.

Unknowingly booking adjoining rooms while on honeymoon with their respective spouses, Victor Prynne (Hudson Oznowicz) and Sybil Chase (Anna Crivelli), Amanda and Elyot are forced to face their true feelings for each other. Louise (Dee Pelletier), the French-speaking maid, also joins the romp.

Pickup and Fagan were smooth as former spouses, with the cloaked neuroses of each on grand display in their interactions. Of particular note to the comedic tempo were Pickup's absolutely matchless facial expressions. Not all comedy is delivered in dialogue, and Pickup's rolling eyes and sweep of the cigarette holder greatly enhanced the force of this play's humor.

On the other hand Crivelli and Oznowicz played their counters with impeccable timing and just the right amount of awkwardness to convince the rest of us of their sorry plight. The former's naivete combined with the latter's stuffiness meshed well with the funny pokes at English society.

Finally, if she were given just a few more minutes and lines, Pelletier's maid would have stolen the entire evening — that's how good she was in every aspect of her movement, speech, and caricature.

The production ran just under two hours, which included about a 20-minute intermission.

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So much of "Private Lives" had to make the whole Deco period believable, and the crew of this production were, in my humble opinion, truly stars and deserved a standing ovation of their own.

Lee Savage's two part set was both surreal in places, but agonizingly detailed to the period in others. Katherine Roth's costumes were spectacularly stylized. Donald Holder's lighting was vividly swooning on target as was Jane Shaw's sound, on time.

B.H. Barry's fight choreography was fun yet credible, Patricia Norcia captured some fine details of the King's English, and Chandalae Nyswonger's stage management displayed uncanny logistical acumen.

I've long been a champion of taking artistic license and dispensing with British accents unless the actor on stage is a native, and this play didn't change my mind — even though I went in open to being convinced otherwise.

Memo to directors everywhere: please, just let it go. Have them speak stylized, stuffy, Olde New England American or Patrician Manhattan Ivy League Alum; it works, and it works well. Think of the smug pretentiousness of speech from the late William F. Buckley, Jr., and you get the idea.

To be quite honest, I was so relieved to see this play opening DTF's season, because it has been a long and dreary winter, and the recent seemingly endless rains portend the very real possibility of a meager summer.

As such, and given these very difficult and contentious times, I can't think of better medicine for Americans to take right now than a very generous dose of humor.

And that, ultimately, should be the measure of any comedy, from Aristophanes to Shakespeare, to Coward. We can dissect productions ad nauseam, but what we can't hide is the laughter in the seats.

"Private Lives" produced much of the latter, which, following winter's bitter cold and this rainy spring, is well worth the drive to Dorset so you can sit back, and lose yourself in sophisticated guffaws.

"Private Lives" by Noel Coward and directed by Evan Yionoulis will run through July 6 at Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset. Info and tickets: 802-867-2223 x101, or dorsettheatrefestival.org

Telly Halkias is a member of the American Theatre Critics Assn. (ATCA). Contact: tchalkias@aol.com, Twitter: @Telly Halkias


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