A worthy revival of 'Private Lives' from Vagabond Players

In terms of enthusiasm for the art form, there is really no difference between community theater groups, with their mostly volunteer corps, and professional companies, with their Actors’ Equity card-carrying cast members.

It’s the matter of artistic quality that tends to separate the waters. But, as many a what-I-do-for-love actor will tell you, there isn’t an automatic correlation between a pay check and a good performance. And when the fates allow, a community theater can deliver remarkably satisfying work.

A case in point is the Vagabond Players’ season-closing production of the vintage Noel Coward comedy “Private Lives.” Directed with an assured touch by Sherrionne Brown, nicely costumed by James J. Fasching and played out on a colorful set by Brown and Roy Hammond, the tight production does justice to Coward’s happy skewering of upper-crusties and societal conventions.

Much may have changed in human relationships since “Private Lives” appeared 83 years ago, but more than enough has remained the same to keep the work fresh as well as funny. There is plenty of comic mileage left in this tale of a divorced couple ending up on the same night in the same hotel in adjacent suites to start honeymoons with new spouses.

Coward has quite the field day with the characters of Amanda and Elyot, whose propensity for bickering and petty jealousies led to their split-up. Unexpectedly reunited in the hotel, the two former mates are soon feeling that old magic, which spells trouble for Elyot’s significantly younger wife, Sibyl, and Amanda’s terribly proper husband, Victor.

The fast-moving plot is propelled by many an Oscar Wilde-worthy quip. When Elyot lectures Amanda that “it doesn't suit women to be promiscuous,” her reply has a timeless zing: “It doesn't suit men for women to be promiscuous.”

And leave it to Coward to figure out a way to insert a titillating hint of a vulgarism without actually crossing the line — when Elyot and Amanda decide to shorten the silly code word, “Solomon Isaacs,” they use to stop themselves from arguing, the result is a neat little rhyme with an expression not uttered in polite company in 1930.

To make “Private Lives” sparkle, actors can’t just spout all this snappy dialogue in a British accent and smoke cigarettes languidly.

There has to be genuine chemistry in the air — something that can explain why Amanda and Elyot keep jumping back on the same scary roller-coaster ride; something that can make sense of the conflicting emotions experienced along the way by Sibyl and Victor.

The Vagabond cast reveals plenty of that chemistry, along with a willingness to do some real digging. Underneath this brittle little play is more brittleness, to be sure, but these players manage to reveal a faint heartbeat, too, and that makes their performance all the more rewarding. (Their accents are also uncommonly persuasive, by the way.)

Michael P. Sullivan nails Elyot’s volatile mix of vanity and charm, arrogance and insecurity. His deftly layered performance is matched by Ann Turiano’s as Amanda. She switches effortlessly from purring to caterwauling and back again, all the while keeping Amanda essentially alluring.

The rapport between these actors allows the tiny traces of tenderness, especially in the second act, to register as richly as the delicious explosions of temper.

Rachel Holmes makes a sweet, not too air-heady Sibyl. And Darren McDonnell shines as the pompous yet vulnerable Victor, giving the character considerable dimension. In the brief role of the French maid, Stephy Miller isn’t as supple as the others, but gets the job done.

All in all, a welcome and worthy revival of Coward’s clever romp through marriages, morals and mayhem.

"Private Lives" runs through June 30.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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