Lantern Theater Company continues its successful season with a smart and very funny production of Noel Coward’s effervescent 1930 comedy Private Lives.
The sophisticated and endlessly witty play focuses on the vivacious and argumentative couple Elyot (Ben Dibble) and Amanda (Geneviève Perrier). The story begins five years following Elyot's and Amanda’s divorce. Both have just remarried; Amanda to a sturdy older chap named Victor (a tweedy Leonard Haas), and Elyot to a lovely younger woman named Sybil (the very impressive K. O. DelMarcelle in her Lantern debut). As chance would have it, they are (unbeknownst to one another) not only honeymooning with their new spouses at the same swanky French hotel but in adjoining rooms that share a sumptuous balcony.
Early on, Coward reveals that neither of the newlyweds is a match made in heaven. Victor is amiable and dully reliable but has none of Amanda’s fiery passion. As for Elyot’s new union, he describes his love for Sibyl as being “undramatic.” Apparently, after their own turbulent marriage, both Elyot and Amanda have obviously opted for a more docile mate the second time around.
It’s not hard to guess what happens next. The divorcees soon discover one another and the moment Elyot’s and Amanda’s eyes meet we know that despite all their past troubles (Amanda blames their divorce on Elyot’s “cruelty and flagrant infidelity”), the pair will soon be reunited.
In past productions, actors often portray Elyot and Amanda as shallow people who are charming and clever and nothing more. But under MacMillan’s direction, both Dibble and Perrier go beyond the couple’s glamorous personas to reveal two lonely and deceptively anxious people desperately in need of companionship and validation.
What makes Elyot and Amanda such a tempestuous couple is that they are exactly alike. More specifically they are exactly like Coward’s carefully cultivated and thoroughly rehearsed public persona. In private, Coward was a reportedly shy, gay man born into a lower-middle-class family. In public, he portrayed himself as a flamboyant bon vivant, a witty, suave man-about-town accustomed to the finer things in life.
In Dibble's and Perrier’s performances, Elyot and Amanda are the epitome of elegance and sophistication. They are also narcissistic and insecure. It this odd mix of self-love and self-loathing that generates the heat between them and they fight and make love with equal passion.
In director Kathryn MacMillan’s savvy production, Porter’s sexual orientation is never far from the surface, especially in the play’s silences, which are as communicative as the dazzling, alternately loving and destructive dialogue that Amanda and Elyot often use like swords in a vicious verbal duel. Similar to a gay couple in a covert romance (a state that Porter was intimately familiar with), Elyot and Amanda cast sly, knowing glances at one another across the room that are weighted with sexual suggestiveness and they even speak in their own codified language.
Dibble's and Perrier’s charisma and camaraderie carry the show, but equally impressive is how MacMillan and her team of designers create a world of opulence in the tiny St. Stephen’s Theater. Scenic designer Meghan Jones makes full use of the small space with a clever set that magically unfolds to reveal Amanda’s sumptuous Paris flat, and Thom Weaver’s lighting design beautifully recreates the alluring moonlight that bathes the balcony in Act I. And befitting Amanda's and Elyot’s lavish lifestyle, costume designer Mark Mariani provides Perrier with a wardrobe of glittering gowns and Dibble with a closet full of dapper tuxedoes, smartly tailored suits and one resplendently silky evening robe.
Extended through Jan. 8. $28. St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th & Ludlow Sts. 215.829.0395. lanterntheater.org