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Theater review: A poignant ‘Private Lives’

Director Scott Palmer goes past the fluff to Noel Coward's dark center

Chrissy Kelly-Pettit as Amanda and Adam Syron as Elyot in Private Lives. Photo:

Chrissy Kelly-Pettit as Amanda and Adam Syron as Elyot in Private Lives. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Amanda and Elyot can’t live together, but they can’t stay apart, as Joe Jackson once sang. The divorced couple remarry other partners — and find themselves honeymooning next door to their also-just-remarried partners. We’re all set for a laugh riot, right? And eventually, we know (from lighter Shakespearean comedies to Astaire and Rodgers films on down), the estranged partners will discover they really love each other, reunite and live happily after ever, blackout.

That’s what happens in Noel Coward’s 1930 masterpiece Private Lives, all right. But all that happens in the first act … and there are two more to go.

Where Coward takes us next isn’t at all what we’d expect, particularly from a playwright with a reputation for wryness rather than rage, and (by modern standards) superficiality more than psychological depth. Which makes Private Lives‘s ultimate destination — messy, painful reality rather than bubbly wishful thinking — all the more surprising, even 80 years later, when we inhabitants of the age of snark think we know all about puncturing ideals.

And that’s why Bag and Baggage Theater’s unexpectedly poignant production of Coward’s “intimate comedy,” which ends this coming weekend, has as much to offer today’s relationships as it did our great grandparents. Despite the period setting, the story feels so modern, I can imagine a staging conducted entirely in text messages.

I can also imagine one that plays up the withering Coward wit and its unlikable protagonists’ sarcasm. But instead, director Scott Palmer unflinchingly looks beyond the cynical humor and into the very dark and real flaws that real people in real relationships harbor, and which ultimately keep couples that we imagine would be perfect for each other apart. It’s a Private Lives for the post-Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf generations.

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