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Private Lives

Noël Coward's most beloved play is absurd, and an absurdly good time

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Private Lives is a very symmetrical comedy. Two couples arrive in France. Each is newly married, now honeymooning. The husband in the first couple (Elyot) was previously married. The wife in the second couple (Amanda) was also married. It happens that these four newlyweds are staying in the same hotel. It also happens that Elyot and Amanda were previously married to each other. 

Noël Coward's most beloved play, now at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, is absurd, and an absurdly good time. When Elyot and Amanda realize their proximity, they fight, they reminisce, and then they run away together, to the chagrin of their respective new spouses. It's been said many times that Coward is light on plot and heavy on wordplay. In the Public's rendition, that sentiment has never been truer. 

The fashion these days is to gussy up old plays with high concepts and actorly "choices." What if Elyot were a little gay, for example? What if Amanda, as the 1930s begin, insinuated Fascist sympathies? Yet director Ted Pappas entertains no such pretentions. This Private Lives is a regular old farce, as straightforward as a comic strip. There is no subtext to sense. What you see is what you get. 

And what you see is lavish fun: James Noone's bourgeois set design is spectacular, Andrew B. Marlay's flapper-era costumes are sumptuous, and if Michael Brusasco, as Elyot, isn't actually playing the grand piano, he fakes it like a prodigy. As Amanda, Victoria Mack is a moody bad girl, and she seems to relish the upside-down logic of Coward's lines. Amanda Leigh Cobb and Laird Mackintosh are similarly hilarious as the slighted wife and husband. 

The only downside to this production is invisible to the audience: Nearly all these actors are out-of-towners. They are veterans of Broadway and prime-time TV, and their skills are clearly superlative. The only full-time Pittsburgher is Elena Alexandratos, who plays "Louise, a maid." The Public may cast whomever it wishes, but is our talent pool so shallow that New York agents must called? I doubt it. Let's hope Steel City actors are getting Big Apple parts in return. It keeps things symmetrical.

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