Can't Live With(out) Her

by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & e stands on a veranda, one hand thrust into the pocket of his elegant double-breasted suit, the other holding a cigarette aloft -- his hair slicked back, the pale skin of his forehead furrowed by the arch of one very sardonic eyebrow, his chin pointing toward heaven.

He won't find it on earth. There's that blasted inconvenience of having to deal with other people -- especially those damnably attractive, exasperating creatures known as women. Music and martinis sometimes compensate for such nuisances -- meanwhile, there's nothing like thwacking cricket balls of wit and seeing them land splat! between the eyes of a conversational opponent.

That's Noel Coward's kind of leading man -- and that's the polished display Kevin Connell puts on throughout the Civic's current production of Coward's Private Lives (through April 23).

Coward wrote the part of Elyot Chase for himself, and though he's a witty raconteur few actors can embody, Connell is up to the task. In this thinking person's escapist comedy about a wealthy, witty married couple -- now divorced, both remarried, careening into one another quite by chance at a French resort -- it's the little things Connell does that give director Trevor Rawlins' production its panache and sheen. Connell drapes his arm over a chair, crossing his legs at the knee and lounging in exquisite self-pity. Surprised by his ex-wife's sudden reappearance, he registers Elyot's incredulity and then snaps his back ramrod-straight, barking out "Are you happy?" to Amanda almost as an accusation. At the new woman in his life, he shouts, "I'd like to cut off your head with a meat ax" -- managing to be simultaneously shocking and comic. Connell includes a note of self-mockery, even when he's delivering the obligatory declaration of passion for Amanda. Rather daft, this business of eloping with one's ex-wife during one's second honeymoon -- but there it is, nothing for it but to see the business through.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & xcept that Coward fashions comedy out of jealous rages and that meat-ax wish -- even out of references to someone's stillborn sister: There's an undercurrent of sadness and anger in Private Lives, making it more than a merely escapist play. Hearing Connell deal out Coward's repartee only reinforces how great this script is. While the rest of Rawlins' production doesn't rise to Connell's level, it's an entertaining safari into a world of cuddly, venomous conversational vipers.

Rawlins directs with admirable variety and flow. A couple of exit lines are mistimed and under-emphasized, as are the famous lines about quibbling Sibyl and cheap music. The third act lagged, though Rawlins generally directed with energy, best of all in the second act's alternating waves of jealousy and love that wash over poor Elyot and Amanda. These two may be exalted at wordplay -- but like lots of couples, they go through periods of intermittent passion, with cold fronts of jealousy and selfishness looming on the horizon.

Jone Campbell Bryan emphasizes Amanda's comic self-absorption. Campbell Bryan excels at these haughty-British-dame roles, though here she catches Amanda's self-dramatizing without snagging enough of her unconventionality. But she has marvelous moments making comedy out of isolated phrases and movements: the inflection she gives to "yes" when asked about when she first met Victor, her second husband (and obviously can't place the moment at all), and the way she appraises her fingernails while dismissing one of Elyot's former flames as "fundamentally stupid."

This is a production, however, in which the age difference between Amanda and Victor makes both of them seem miscast. Campbell Bryan's Amanda seems not so much impulsive and pleasure-seeking as simply impatient with a callow youth; as Victor, J.J. Renz seems like an earnest undergraduate who lacks the gravitas to embody British formality. And in the play's other thankless role, Elyot's new wife Sibyl, Rita O'Farrell doesn't succeed, either. She garbles her English accent and isn't either sweet enough or irate enough when the script calls for it.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & n a more positive note, Peter Hardie contributes an elegant set, especially with the French doors and stone balustrade of the adjoining hotel rooms in Deauville. Susan Berger and Jan Wanless, too often underappreciated as costumers, present a succession of elegant gowns and well-tailored suits.

While the rest of this production doesn't completely keep step with Kevin Connell's polished impersonation of Coward's Dashing Chap in a Formal Dinner Jacket, enough of the dance is here to remind us of all the effervescent fun in the Land of Noel. There's a lot of froth in those champagne bottles, if only we can avoid hurling them at one another.

Summer Parkways @ South Hill

Through June 20
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