Chicago Theatre Review
The Cowardy Touch
Private Lives – Shaw Chicago
In what appears to be a Noel Coward Festival, currently being enjoyed around Chicago this Fall (“Design for Living” and “Fallen Angels” are also being produced by two other theatres), ShawChicago continues its 2015/16 season with what may be the playwright’s most popular of all his plays. It also happens to be a perfect choice for a company known for reducing a theatrical work down to the sheer power of its words. Like Shaw and his peers, Noel Coward is best known for his sparkling, witty dialogue, his eccentric and memorable characters and his biting satire of the upper class elite. In this, “Private Lives” is delicious perfection.
This time around Artistic Director Bob Scogin has offered the directorial reins to guest director, Barbara Zahora. Ms. Zahora, who’s demonstrated her theatrical talent all over Chicago, recently appeared in the title role of ShawChicago’s “Major Barbara.” Ms. Zahora’s done a wonderful job with a cast that includes favorites Mary Michell, as Amanda, Michael Lasswell as Elyot, Leslie Ann Handelman as Sybil, Doug MacKechnie as Victor and Lydia Berger Gray as Louise. Every word, every syllable, every raised eyebrow and condescending glare is exactly as Coward intended. For the theatergoer who particularly enjoys the visual element of these productions, each character is costumed with particular style and elegance.
Michael Lasswell is dapper and debonaire in the role Noel Coward wrote especially for himself. Mr. Lasswell’s delivery is direct and often deadly venomous, hitting his target with carefully chosen and enunciated words and phrases. The actor wields a subtle arrogance that bites although, for his intended prey, the sting isn’t always immediately realized. Mary Michell is as magical as Amanda as she was playing Lady Bracknell and Lady Britomart in recent ShawChicago productions. Leading with her aristocratic chin, Ms. Michell matches her talented costar, look for disdainful look and word for supercilious word. The actress not only sounds as if she was born to play this role, she looks the part, particularly in a stunning burgundy evening gown that Tallulah Bankhead would’ve envied. This perfectly matched couple of characters, once married and now divorced and remarried, love, criticize, argue and fight with every ounce of their being. These are two accomplished actors having a field day playing the roles of a lifetime.
Leslie Ann Handelman lights up the stage once again, this time as Sybil. Ms. Handelman, who charmed audiences last season as Cecily in ShawChicago’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” brings her youth and vivacity to a character who, in lesser hands, would be left in the dust by Amanda. But in this top drawer production, Ms. Handelman not only holds her own, but leaves a lasting impression long after the final bows. Between her bubbly euphoria at being a newlywed, to her hilarious bubbling and crying when events turn sour, Leslie Ann makes the most of this spoiled British babydoll. Handsome Doug MacKechnie, another regular at ShawChicago, is strong and commanding as Victor. From the beginning he demonstrates that he’s easy prey for Amanda and will soon prove less of a sparring partner. When Mr. MacKechnie and Mr. Lasswell confront each other in Act III the stage sizzles with comic rivalry. The audience soon sees that Victor and Sybil are not only united in combat, but show signs of probably becoming a romantic match, too. In fact, as the curtain falls, theatergoers are left with the impression that Sybil and Victor are simply younger versions of Amanda and Elyot. Lydia Berger Gray’s portrayal of a put upon, easily irritated French maid, who appears to be suffering from a cold, adds yet another level of comedy to this play. Ms. Gray is hilarious schlepping across the stage, carrying out Amanda’s orders and giving the stink eye to this quartet of snooty, demanding Brits.
The only criticism with this production might be nitpicking. Audiences have come to expect and appreciate a certain time-honored convention used in ShawChicago’s staged readings. In most every production, an actor plays the entire show facing full front to the audience. In doing so, every theatergoer becomes his scene partner. In Ms. Zahora’s production, the actors still initially abide by this convention. However, they gradually break with this device. Soon, the actors are not only facing one other, they’re making physical contact, sometimes striking and kissing one another. It seems natural enough and provides some added humor, but in mixing these two styles of presentation, the audience becomes confused. It’s even debatable as to whether this can still be called a “staged reading,” or if it’s drifted into some other territory.
The production still brims with Cowardy command, thanks to Barbara Zahora’s expert direction. She’s guided her actors to create characters that are strong, honest and urbane, while allowing the playwright’s superbly-written language to rise to the surface, always bubbling and fizzing like a newly opened bottle of champagne. This is a show that will leave audiences inebriated with laughter.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 21-December 14 by ShawChicago at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-587-7390 or by going to www.shawchicago.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.