by Doug Nordfors
For those of you who have heard the phrase, “I feel like I’m in a Noel Coward play,” but have never actually seen a Noel Coward play, now’s your chance.
The phrase means feeling awash in zingers and quips, as if flippancy is the only human means of communication. The UVA Deapartment of Drama’s choice among Coward’s works, Private Lives, is practically drowning in flippancy.
The play was written in 1930, when demand in Britain for entertaining, formulaic (what are the chances of an ex-married couple showing up at the same hotel with their new spouses?) comedy was high. After World War II, Coward’s popularity disintegrated when he refused to take part in his country’s newfound obsession with realism. Nowadays, Coward is no cultural barometer, just a guy whose plays, if staged right, can make us laugh.
So let’s start by checking the laugh meter. If we’re talking about the out-loud variety, then it’s fitful. But that’s not really a bad thing. Most people will experience a constant inner laughter, like a hum in the back of the mind.
Part of the fun is seeing Jan Mason’s directing. Most theatre directors today consider it a virtue not to make their presence known. Mason, on the other hand, needs to put her visible stamp on the play, and the results should be applauded. In Act II, after the reconciled ex-married couple gradually rediscovers its past misery, Mason’s creative blocking, use of silence and manipulation of props function almost like a third character.
Coward was an actor as well as a playwright, and it’s clear from his dialogue that he knew what a gas it can be for an actor to talk the way no one talks in the real world. Of the main cast of four, Heather Mayes and Matt Fletcher seem to be having the most fun, and so sail beyond Molly Bielhart and Adam Jonas Segaller’s plain excellence.
Anyone with a fake-accent phobia need not worry. The whole cast is quite convincing – a good thing, since the upper class English accents are crucial. Somehow, “There’s no need to be nasty” is just not as funny as, “There’s no need to be nahsty.”
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