Private Nightmare

It's been said that Noel Coward's Private Lives is foolproof; that it's such a well-written, tightly strung play that even a third-rate company can't mess it up. But this isn't something that's being said by people who've been to Phoenix Theatre recently. There, despite the efforts of one leading lady, a stage full of thespians is doing its level best to turn Coward's delightful comedy of manners into a cheap knockoff.

In fact, it isn't true that anyone can do justice to Coward. It takes more than a waistcoat and a sniffy attitude to sell his masterfully droll dialogue and impossibly snooty socialites. Coward requires cast members who can speak in bons mots and not sound stuffy, and a director able to both exhume the playwright's subtext and polish the glossy surface of his often scornful stories. Private Lives is Coward's most famous play, a bright, brittle comedy about a divorced couple who meet again while honeymooning with their new spouses. If you listen closely between laugh lines (and there are many), you can hear Coward quipping about the impossibility of true love. But not here. When Maren Maclean isn't onstage, all one hears is a lot of Yankees working overtime to sound British.

Director Brad Carroll keeps the story moving along, and has staged a nearly perfect slapstick battle sequence, but he appears to have confused effete with effeminate, because each of his leading men is as nelly as a day at Dollywood. In repose, Chris Vaglio is a striking Elyot Chase; it's only when he begins moving and speaking that his performance suffers. He pirouettes back and forth across the stage, professing his love for various women and approximating the stance of a Cowardesque leading man, which requires a lot of preening while still appearing mannish. The only thing worse than Vaglio's fake British accent is Robert Kolby Harper's fake British accent, which owes more to the Bronx than to Brighton. Harper's idea of playing high society involves a lot of lip-pursing and eyebrow-wagging, but not much in the way of acting. Coward's men are meant to appear bored, but these guys are merely boring.

They are virtuosos, however, compared to Heather Massie, who can only muster a caricature of a British lady in her portrayal of Sibyl Chase. The single convincing element of Jennifer Bemis' performance as a French maid is the frilly apron she wears; her emoting is on a par with her attempts at parlez-vousing, which are strictly Berlitz.

Then there's Maclean, who should be handed a palm for her flawless performance and a second one for daring to appear onstage alongside such unrehearsed players. Not a syllable of Coward's stylish, stuck-up language is lost on this elegant actress, who plays Amanda as she's written: refined, catty, and tough as nails. Pacing William H. Symington's plastic-and-plasterboard first-act set (Symington clearly shot his wad on the impressive Paris apartment set he's built for Act Two), sporting a head full of Manuela Needhammer's Dynel finger curls, Maclean is always utterly captivating. Hers is the only true performance here, and really the only reason not to miss this otherwise middling production.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela