Friday, September 25, 2009

Private Lives, Lakeland Theatre

(Emily Pucell and Sebastian Orr are dazzling as Amanda and Elyot)

It might seem that producing an airy, feather-light comedy would be a rather easy task. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, such light bits of fluff are demanding on both actors and director, since the timing, pace and characterizations must be close to perfect lest the meringue fall flat into a gooey lump.

Private Lives by Noel Coward, wickedly witty and gaily mischievous, is just such a delicate creation. And the current production at the Lakeland Theatre, on the Lakeland Community College campus, turns out to be a frothy meringue of the first magnitude.

Although there are five cast members in this show, it is essentially a two-person prizefight between Elyot and Amanda, two upper class English folk with enough time and money to focus all their attentions—both cuddly and snarky—on each other. And under the pitch-perfect direction of Martin Friedman, actors Sebastian Orr and Emily Pucell deliver a thoroughly polished, completely delightful rendition of this whirling hate-love-hate-love-hate-love relationship.

Having divorced each other before the show begins, Elyot and Amanda each show up on adjoining balconies at the French Riviera with their new spouses, Sibyl and Victor. It doesn’t take long for Elyot and Amanda to share a glance, then a cocktail, and then fly off to Paris to restart their tumultuous life together.

From the start, Orr is every inch the dapper yet mercurial Elyot. Coming across like a slim, elegant David Niven, Orr makes this essentially over-the-top character remarkably believable and, always, a joy to behold. And the lovely Pucell is his equal in all ways, snapping off Coward’s pithy bon mots (“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”) with charming precision.

Orr and Pucell’s time together on stage (and it is ample) covers all the bases—from tender cooing to physical blows. And it all works sublimely well, with the transitions employing stretches of silence that magnify both the tension and the comedy. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence doing it much better in the original stage production back in 1931.

Among the supporting characters, Alison Bencar picks up the Coward vibe and handles the irritating role of the uber-feminine Sibyl with style. But as dull Victor, Joshua D. Brown emanates a drabness that is less "dowdy Brit all at sea" and more middle manager at Avery Dennison. However, Brown rallies a bit in the final act when Victor and Sibyl get into their own spat. As the maid Louise, Christina Dennis handles the French accent but can’t quite find her comedic hook.

Still, this is one play where the two leads must carry the day. And in this production, Orr and Pucell are so good you want to pack them up and take them home with you.

Private Lives
Through October 11 at the Lakeland Theatre,
Lakeland Community College, Rt. 306 and Rt. 90,
Kirtland, 440-525-7526

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