Noël Coward’s Private Lives lets its characters break all the rules. The raucously funny play, closing the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s season from May 29 to July 13, celebrates over-the-top misbehavior that runs the gamut from witty wordplay to hurling objects at one another.
Director Maria Aitken is the mastermind behind this production, with years of experience playing Coward’s heroines and directing Private Lives. With the exception of a new maid – who apparently fits right in – Aitken is leading the same intimate cast that performed together at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company in 2012. The close-knit group even took the same train to DC together, gathering in the club car to let the exciting reality sink in that they’re all performing together again.
Penned in 1930, the fast-paced comedy opens with divorcées Elyot and Amanda bumping into each other while on honeymoons with their new spouses. The pair – who truly fit the old adage of “can’t live with you, can’t live without you” – quickly realize they still have feelings for each other but handle their emotions with total immaturity and outlandish behavior.
Actress Bianca Amato, who plays Amanda, says there’s nothing highbrow about Private Lives. She encourages theatergoers to come see the play if “you just want to have a blast and laugh until you cry and pee in your pants.”
“It’s an evening like having a bubbly cocktail,” she says. “There’s nothing more delicious.”
If Amato were asked to list the five characters she would absolutely want to play over the course of her career, Amanda is one of them.
“She’s just one of those roles that you wait all your life to play,” she says. “She’s so funny and smart and irreverent and brave. She’s just one of those special ones.”
The actress says that even though the play takes place in 1930, it’s still got a very modern feel and touch to it.
“It’s certainly not one of those [plays] where you have to pull it out of the closet and shake the moth balls off of it.”
Amato plays opposite actor James Waterston as Elyot. The two, who played the tumultuous twosome in 2012 and lovers Jack and Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest, have an electric onstage chemistry.
“Elyot and Amanda have this tempestuous love relationship,” Waterston says. “They sort of enter each other’s souls.”
Waterston says his role as Elyot is unbelievable.
“He’s extremely witty, he’s extremely elegant, he’s extremely petty,” he says of his character.
The actor describes Private Lives as “the whole package.”
“There’s fighting, there’s dancing, there’s music,” he says. “You can come to this show because you want this gorgeous meringue – a soufflé – to escape your life’s troubles and just hear about people behaving completely irresponsibly, with impunity [and] with more money than they know what to do with.”
But there’s also a more serious side to the play that he appreciates. Not only does the audience experience the deep passion shared by the dueling lovebirds, they gain an understanding of how important it was to lighten the mood in a post-World War I world. Waterston describes this frivolity as a survival tool.
“Elyot and Amanda are clinging to trivial matters and being flippant,” he says. “They want to take the piss out of everything because it’s far too serious to be serious about. It’s a world view that you should lampoon everything.”
Waterston says the two characters are lords of misrule. Their misbehavior is countless, but they make mischief in the wittiest way. He recommends the play to “anyone who wants to see grownups behaving like children – smoking, drinking and having affairs.”
“If you like to see people doing everything but throwing the kitchen sink at each other, this is your cup of tea,” he says. “It’s ridiculously silly.”
But ultimately, he can’t imagine anyone not having a grand time during a performance.
“Anyone who enjoys laughter will enjoy this play. Anyone who enjoys love will enjoy this play. And anyone who enjoys people throwing things at each other will enjoy this play.”
Private Lives runs from May 29 to July 13. Folks age 21 - 35 can enjoy Young Prose Nights on Wednesday, June 18 and Wednesday, July 9.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC; www.shakespearetheatre.org.