Friday, June 8, 2012

A classic classic at the Huntington

Waterston and Amato arm for their next lovers' quarrel. Photo(s): Paul Marotta.

If you haven't noticed (and why should you have?), the debate over new plays vs. classics has once again coughed to life in the blogosphere.  Of course the usual suspects (i.e., under-talented climbers) have piped up with the familiar arguments against producing the great plays - when, as everyone knows, their actual argument is that if classics once again are allowed pride of place on the stage, young playwrights will be forced to reckon with their standard (which is something they quite desperately do not want to do).

But don't worry - I'm not about to make an argument in favor of the classic theatre; instead I'm going to let the Huntington's current production of Noël Coward's Private Lives make it for me. Just see it and you'll understand what I mean; the heady buzz that it leaves the audience in tells you that a classic done right is its own argument - indeed, it simply levels the opposition.

But before you speed-dial Parabasis, I don't mean by this that theatres should abandon new work (far from it!).  The Huntington does both, after all (The Luck of the Irish was their most recent new-play success), and while artistic director Peter DuBois seems, well, disinterested in the classics, he has been careful to hire great outside directors to carry on that half of his theatre's mandate.  Hence we have recently enjoyed unforgettable productions of plays like Candide and All My Sons.

Perhaps somewhere DuBois understands that without the frame of the classics, new work has no context, or rather its context becomes television (which may be why so many new plays have begun to resemble cable).  Indeed, context is part of the reason classics continue to be central to every other art form; symphony orchestras, for instance, play Beethoven and Mozart because they define the reach - and limits - of their medium (at least so far).  When an orchestra launches into Beethoven, it is in effect stating "This is what we're aiming for; this what it's all about; this is what you can do with an orchestra." When a ballet company takes the stage in Balanchine, it is making the same kind of declaration. Theatres should do classic plays for precisely the same reason - and what's more, new playwrights should welcome the challenge and inspiration they provide.

Now mind you - after all those claims, I'm going to have to admit that Private Lives isn't actually a great classic; it's a minor classic (if a highly entertaining one).  And this isn't even quite a great production - it's only a very, very good production; and oddly, one that doesn't attempt to "re-invent" or "update" the text, but plays everything absolutely straight; in other words, this is a classic version of a classic. And yet everyone is celebrating!  It has critics doing handsprings, and on opening night, people were as bubbly as the champagne flowing through half the show as they surged into the night after the final curtain.  That's how powerful classics - even minor ones - can truly be.

The originals in the original production.
Although okay, I admit it - I do adore Private Lives.  Coward churned out many plays, songs, and entertainments over the course of his life - some of them only serviceable, some of them even dross, but a handful that may well live forever - or at any rate deserve to.  And Private Lives is one of those happy few.

Like most of classic Coward, it's a confession disguised as a cabaret act; and it is immortal because almost unconsciously, beneath all the sparkling quips and flip bon mots, the author reveals more than he ever meant to about his own heart - and certain conditions plaguing it that are probably universal.  He himself, of course, played lead Elyot Chase in the 1930 premiere, opposite muse Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda (he directed as well, and cast a rising young actor named Laurence Olivier as Amanda's new husband, Victor).  You get some idea of how perfectly matched Coward and Lawrence were as the warring old flames at the center of Coward's comedy from the following legend: when Lawrence first read the play, she immediately cabled "There's nothing wrong with it that can't be fixed!"  Coward cabled back at once that her own performance was the only thing that he thought would need fixing.

Ever since, Private Lives has been catnip to actors, but few have captured precisely the elusive chemistry that Coward and Lawrence brought to the roles.  And at the Huntington, I'm afraid, the trend still holds true: James Waterston (yes, son of Sam) is obviously miscast as Elyot; he lacks the sense of cheeky chic, the easy gloss of fabulousness, that we expect of a Coward hero.  Plus he seems heterosexual, when of course Coward was one of those male orchids of the 20's and 30's (Cary Grant was another) whose allure seemed to soar onto some higher plane, and make questions of ultimate orientation irrelevant (Lawrence had something of the same aura, and let's not get started on Olivier!).

Luckily, however, Waterston is a smart and accomplished actor, and he makes the wit work in his own appealingly spoiled way - and he makes us believe (and this is crucial) that arch as he may be, his love for Amanda is real.  And at any rate, his costar supplies enough luxe for both of them; Bianca Amato (at right) is practically the perfect Amanda - très amusante and yet a little world-weary too; more self-aware than Elyot but also more impulsive and exasperating; with a streak of the gamine in her soul, and a hint of boyishness as well (which would, in a more perfect world, balance Elyot's feminine hauteur).  What's more, she warbles (and Charlestons) like a dream.  I've seen several Lives - and one that cohered slightly more than this one, with both a brighter gleam and deeper shadows, too; but I've never seen a better Amanda, and I don't expect to; Amato is Amanda.

Together these two - with the help of director Maria Aitken (who herself once played Amanda) - exquisitely limn Coward's great theme (almost his only theme); the folly of living for, and to, the siren call of infatuation.  Elyot and Amanda are the type who can neither live with nor without each other; already divorced, we bump into them when they bump into each other, on their respective honeymoons with innocent new spouses.  Needless to say, their spark is rekindled (for who else could be more attractive?), they ditch the new bride and groom, and the rest of the play follows their impulsively renewed affair as it flares brightly, in a cocoon of delicious intimacy, then eventually (and inevitably) crashes and burns.

But before Coward lets you wag the finger, he brings those conventional, outraged spouses onto the scene, to play out their own emotional arc (from which, as usual for this playwright, the heroes simply escape again).  The joke, of course, is that this proves what is true of Elyot and Amanda is true, to some degree, of everybody; but the surprise here is how complex at least one of these figures becomes.  Autumn Hurlbert is perfectly good as the chirpy Sibyl, Elyot's spurned spouse; but Jeremy Webb (below, with Amato) makes something extraordinary out of Victor, who's generally cast as a quietly pompous prig.  Webb teases so much sophisticated, even noble, color from his final scenes with Amanda, however, that you leave almost wishing he'd been playing Elyot.  I've seen Mr. Webb before - and been impressed before, too; indeed, after this performance I have the feeling he may be one of the most gifted classical actors in America.  May the casting gods bring him our way again, and soon.

Well - do you really need to know more, or do you have your tickets yet?  The scenic and costume design, by Allen Moyer and Candice Donnelly, respectively, are quite smashing (as you can tell from these photos - the  scrims after Dufy are also just right, and the Parisian apartment, knowingly graced with a huge mirror, is particularly expert).  On the sidelines, local light Paula Plum does a droll turn - and nails a convincing accent - as Amanda's put-upon maid.  Meanwhile director Maria Aitken, whose subtle and intelligent work has become a staple at the Huntington, perhaps glides over the darker notes that Coward (almost unwittingly) strikes, but she doesn't try to obscure them, either; she clearly knows this play inside and out, and she lets you figure some things out for yourself.  Nor does Aitken make too much fuss over the slap Elyot delivers to Amanda (just after she has struck him over the head with a phonograph record); she conveys that no, this is not acceptable behavior, while acknowledging that with someone as essentially childish as Elyot, it's not so unexpected, either.

So you leave bemused by these people, but hardly morally impressed; and that's as it should be, too.  You may even find yourself teased by a certain trace of sympathy for this pampered pair - poor, divine Elyot and Amanda!  How barren their gorgeous lives must be!  And if you're like me, you may even want to spend more time with them.  For yes, I admit I'm paying this production my highest compliment: I'm paying to see it a second time.


  1. The accomplished Ms Plum is, of course, an Amanda with a Boston production of the play in her past. Is she, perhaps, standing by for Ms Amato?

  2. Yes, I know Paula has played Amanda herself. And I love Paula. But I'm standing by my assessment of Amato.