What is it about good writing that turns even the most irredeemable and loathsome characters into endearing protagonists? Whatever it is, it can be found in abundance in “Private Lives” at the Raven Theatre. Directed by Ian Frank, this reimagining of Noël Coward’s classic comedy of manners will have you rooting for scoundrels and cheering on charlatans.
The story follows Elyot (Rudy Galvan) and Amanda (Emily Tate), who have been divorced for three years only to end up in adjoining rooms while on honeymoon with their new spouses at an affluent French resort. Haunted by a motif from Celine Dion’s “I’m Your Lady,” they take a page from Agnes de Mille’s “Oklahoma” and launch into a stage-spanning dream ballet. Without so much as a goodbye, they abscond to Amanda’s flat in Paris, leaving their estranged spouses confused and dumbfounded, marking the shortest honeymoon phase in marriage history.
The second act takes place in Amanda’s Paris apartment where she and Elyot languish about in postcoital bliss after three days of incessant lovemaking. A safeword is devised to tamp down further bickering, the mention of which imposes an unconditional two-minute timeout. And it works… For a while. But their toxic personalities overcome their precautions and the scene devolves into a hysterical fight that finds every liftable object used as a projectile (pillows, cigarette butts, lo mein noodles). This explosive confrontation is highly predictable, but the savagery at which they go at each other is nonetheless satisfying.
The jilted newlyweds, Sybil (Alexis Green) and Victor (Matthew Martinez Hannon), track down Amanda and Elyot in the third act, barricading them in separate rooms. Attempts to negotiate are to no avail. Elyot and Amanda cannot stop lobbing incessant verbal jabs at one another. Eventually, the vitriol proves infectious, transforming Sybil and Victor into mirror images of their abhorrent ex-lovers, leading to an explosive confrontation between them that ends with a sudden, sexy twist.
The one anomaly in the predictable plot is the maid, Louise (Bradley Halverson), who introduces each act dressed in a new outfit and speaking in French. There was no translation, and the occasional wave of a hand or nod of the head did little to convey what they were talking about. Other than to deliver coffee in the third act, it is not clear what the character’s purpose is, other than to evoke a few chuckles at their general French-ness.
The dialogue is dry as a bone, sharp and distinctly British—although delivered in a 1930s New York City high society accent. Every minute another zinger—“Do you realize we’re living in sin?” “Not according to Catholics. They don’t believe in divorce!” The sarcastic wordplay elicits gasps and guffaws from the audience, and it is fun to watch the characters eviscerate one another with every sarcastic turn of phrase.
Like cotton candy, the ingredients are simple, sweet and colorful, but it is the blustery way they are spun together—mixed with a healthy dose of schadenfreude—that makes “Private Lives” a light, airy and delectable treat worth seeing.
“Private Lives” at Raven Theatre, 6157 North Clark, raventheatre.com, (773)338-2177. Through November 13.