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Pretty, witty and gay 

by Michael Bowen

Having scheduled the opening of Noel Coward's frothy comedyPrivate Lives for just a few days after the terrorists' outrage, Interplayers may seem unlucky. After watching mass murder looping endlessly on TV screens, who wants to bother with a flock of pampered socialites from the Roaring '20s and their trivial banter?

When ruined buildings and buried corpses overwhelm us, Coward's outlandish comic premise may seem irresponsibly escapist. Five years after their divorce, a quarrelsome couple meet by chance while both are on second honeymoons. (Their French Riviera hotel balconies turn out to be adjacent.) Once moonlight and champagne do their mischief, Elyot and Amanda improvise an escape by eloping. The second-string spouses, naive Sybil and pompous Victor, are left to commiserate, then pursue the bigamous pair to Paris, where the ensuing confrontations and recriminations are supposed to seem uncomfortable to the characters but ludicrous to playgoers.

Except that we're not in the mood for love. We're not sure that we should be laughing at all. Everyone, after all, is numb, wandering around shell-shocked.

But then we take note of all those comic entrances. Wordlessly, the four major players in Michael Weaver's production solicit giggles even before they begin delivering the witticisms. First appears newlywed Sybil (Angela DiMarco), whose over-precious sigh upon first mincing out onto the seaside verandah establishes her as a giggling portrait of excessive sentimentality. She can squeal and squirm as well as anyone. Then comes Sybil's husband, Elyot Chase (Tim Kniffin), the picture of suavity and self-assurance. Next, Victor displays himself on the next-door balcony, and the way Tim Eastman portrays stuffed-shirt arrogance earned a well-deserved laugh -- as with the others, before even a word was uttered. Finally, Susan Mansefield arrives as Amanda, sensual in a silky white negligee. She nails down how accustomed this woman is to manipulating men with her sexual allure.

Four entrances, four effective bits of comedy. Perhaps the evening is looking up. It's clear that Kniffin and especially Mansefield are more than up to the lead roles. When they decide to run off together, they could do the honorable thing and stay to inform their spouses -- but no, that's too horrible to contemplate. Escape sounds much more romantic (not to mention easy). Self-indulgence marks this couple, and they live -- at least briefly, in the middle act -- in a sort of timeless, bohemian playland. Deciding just when to have one's cigarette and one's brandy are decisions of great import. Their indifference to everyday concerns would seem irresponsible and escapist, except for two features of the play: Coward allows them snippets of conversation about weighty matters, and he masterfully depicts this headstrong pair weaving in and out of affection and then anger.

Both the script and Kniffin and Mansefield's acting are seamless when it comes to discerning precisely when these two turn the lovey-dovey switch off and reach for the knives. At various junctures, Elyot and Amanda investigate their views on infidelity, theology, hell, dying and bodily corruption. Elyot's playful taunt to Amanda that he's not willing to wait "until the worms pop in and out of your eye sockets" is straight out of Andrew Marvell; more important, it unites the perspectives of love and death that mark this play as a classic, and more than mere farce -- it's a farce that's aware of the painful world beyond.

Private Lives doesn't offer its escapism unadulterated and pure; instead, it offers escapism in a context. Coward's characters are frantic for pleasure because they know that pain and death lurk just around the corner of the next hotel suite.

And now, for this production, the context has us all replaying the nightmare of skyscrapers crumbling. Yet this isn't the first time Coward's brand of silliness has been juxtaposed with death. Twelve years after Private Lives, Coward did the same thing with his 1941 comedy, Blithe Spirit, concerning a widower whose first wife comes back as a ghost in order to pester him and his unfortunate second wife. Coward's play may have seemed to scoff at grief, but the comedy was his way of responding to losses both national and personal. After he returned home one evening to find his London apartment destroyed by a German bomb, Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in just five days. And while it may have been a goofy farce, the play also alluded to lost passion and longing and sadness. He later marveled that the audience "had to walk across planks laid over rubble caused by a recent air raid to see a light comedy about death." In the midst of the Blitz, he had amused his fellow citizens and given them hope. A tremendous hit, Blithe Spirit ran throughout the war for nearly five years and nearly 2,000 performances.

By now, everyone in this country has seen the rubble and the corpses. Like those wartime Britons, we have to walk through the ruins and all the death -- through them at first, but eventually past them. And comedy -- perhaps especially comedy that doesn't shy away from heavy matters -- lends us a helping hand. I don't mean to saddle Coward with too much social significance. After all, as he observed, "I liked to be contemporary and bright as a button, but I don't think I was all that keen on being significant."

Still, Coward's comic antics should be allowed their significance even in tragic times. There's no obligation to feel guilty because you're attending a sporting event or seeing a play. We still need -- never more, perhaps, than now -- the reassurance that life continues, that couples can still reconcile after their petty spats, that one of comedy's functions is to unite us in temporary community, that love can and will endure. The timing of Interplayers' season-opening production urges us, in effect, to bind up our wounds with badinage.

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