Imagine being divorced and done with your ex and then running into him or her on your honeymoon for your second marriage. What would you do?
That’s the problem 1930s British exes Amanda Prynne (Rachel Pickup) and Elyot Chase (Ken Barnett) run into at a resort on the French seaside five years after their break-up while honeymooning with their new spouses, Victor Prynne (Henry Clarke) and Sybil Chase (Jenni Barber), respectively, in Private Lives at Hartford Stage.
But their new lives become anything but private as old love threatens new and flares up again over all their years of rage and resentment. The result? Immorality. Comedy. Violence. Raw passion. Heartbreak. A happy ending, sort of. Gunshots. Romance. Drama, definitely drama. Cigarettes, a lot of cigarettes.
The star of the show for me was the set, designed by Alexander Dodge, who was also the set designer for Tony Award-winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at Hartford Stage and on Broadway. There were only two pieces, but the attention to detail was impressive. The opening half of the play on two hotel balconies drives the plot, first juxtaposing Amanda’s and Elyot’s new lives by alternating between the couples’ separate conversations, then creating tension in their plans when they see each other and finally allowing them to literally climb over the balcony back into each other’s lives as the each spend time on the other’s hotel balcony to share cigarettes, drinks and embraces.
With little other stage space, I wondered if the entire play would take place on the balconies, until two of the characters run off together and the set dynamically spins around on a wheel to the fancy interior of a Parisian place. Quite a literal plot twist! And then one more spin at the end.
Darko Tresnjak, who won Best Direction for the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Choice awards for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, is the artistic director for Private Lives.
The other stand-out moments came from the actress with the least stage time, Carine Montbertrand, who plays French maid, Louise. All of her lines are in French, so she plays up her character in such an animated way that even if you don’t know what she’s saying, you laugh because of her fierce reactions to the leads and her slow walks out of the room with a look of distain on her face. I did catch a “ce n’est pas ma faute” in there, which means “it’s not my fault.” If you speak French I’d be interested to see if you found her scenes even funnier.
Pickup is stunning and spirited as Amanda, an elegant tall, slender brunette. She is reminiscent of The Newsroom’s MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), which is only fitting because Mac and Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) muddle and battle through rekindled love in the same way Amanda and Elyot do. You see the most emotion and physicality from Barnett when he is alongside Pickup. He masters sarcasm and imagination with humor in the irony of the situations presented and the contrast of a serious, pompous demeanor with what he is actually saying, sometimes casting a subtle smile to let the audience in on his jokes. Barnett also dazzles the audience with his masterful piano playing at one point.
While Pickup and Barnett excel in connection, their chemistry with their characters’ second spouses, Victor (Clarke) and Sybil (Barber) is lacking and artificial. You would never believe that those two are the ones they end up with, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe they need to be more distant from those characters to accentuate their residual love for each other. Clarke’s Victor is more sensitive and submissive, much like Barber’s Sybil, who works herself up into hysterics over Elyot’s secrecy and former wife.
The expressiveness in Pickup’s and Barber’s character voices added punch and comedy to their lines in a script by English playwright Noël Coward that is bound to make you laugh.
With a cast of five, it’s amazing how much the production captures your attention through mostly wordplay. The most action you see comes in the form of physical violence and stage combat. The audience was laughing during the scenes because the tone was almost comedic in how irrational the characters were being, but it did evoke some gasps when a head is smashed into a wall and gunshots are fired and it settled in that it was actually a serious moment of domestic violence. So, it might not be the best show to bring the kids to, though the violence is very choreographed.
The play doesn’t have an intermission and that does make it feel longer without the break, so make sure you use the restroom and get your snacks and beverages at concessions before the show.
Private Lives runs through Feb. 8, including Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets start at $25 and discounts of up to 40 percent are available for groups of 10 or more. For more information on tickets, call the box office at 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.