She sings. She dances. She acts.
Those are the answers to the question: What is "Dynasty's" Joan Collins doing in Noel Coward's "Private Lives"?
For those out there still sniggering, surely you know by now that Collins is not a woman to be underestimated. And any doubts you might have that she can hold her own on stage should be dispelled by the production of this Noel Coward favorite that had its official opening Thursday at the Wilshire Theatre. Hey, if Elizabeth Taylor had the chutzpah in 1983 to attempt what the ineffable Gertrude Lawrence had created in 1930, why not Joan Collins?
Why not indeed. Lawrence's reputation is still safe, but Collins, although not everyone may be aware of it, comes with proper credentials. She started on the stage and her early training was at London's eminent Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. While this is no automatic guarantee of anything, trust me, even 7 1/2 years of "Dynasty" and some tasteless-funny radio commercials for this show have not diminished her ability to take a stage. She takes it, but she doesn't steal it. Not for herself and not from anyone else.
That, folks, is the real surprise--a performance remarkably devoid of look-at-me posturing. The worst sin committed by Collins is a tendency to punch a line harder than it requires, in other words to overact here and there, and in theatrical annals that's a relatively minor transgression.
Unlike, in this very theater, the klutzy Richard Burton-Liz Taylor 1983 stab at the same material that reeked of look-at-us-together-again baggage, this "Private Lives" is legit. A real show, not a sideshow. Good if not great.
Under Arvin Brown's crisp direction, it's a U.S. reconstitution of the production Collins was in last year in London. And it's an equal-opportunity one, with the casting solid throughout and billing for co-star Simon Jones right up there above the title with Collins.
Does it live up to expectations? Since those were not high to start with, the answer is easily yes. But the other pleasant surprise is how well everyone else complements Collins, whose own performance as the imperial Amanda is brisk and intelligent, if somewhat interrupted by her singing of "Some Day I'll Find You."
This is ironic, since Collins is, in fact, only restoring the beautiful though arbitrary ballad written by Coward for his "Private Lives" co-star Lawrence (a real singer). It's usually cut by non-singing successors to the role. The song feels intrusive, perhaps because the limber Collins is only a tentative singer, less confident warbling than she is cutting up, bickering and, like an expert, tossing lethal pots of coffee at convenient targets.
She's a worthy opponent for Jones' strong, suave Elyot, the quintessential sophisticate who is every bit her match in their roller-coaster battle of the sexes. Jill Tasker is exquisitely annoying as the terminally innocuous Sybil without being cartoonish, and Edward Duke is an absolute find as Victor: smug, self-assured and equipped with a set of idiosyncrasies guaranteed to drive a woman mad. Greased hair is one, and it does not elude this Amanda.
Loren Sherman has designed sumptuous Art Deco sets--a hotel balcony in pink tones with a beautifully detailed green railing for Act I; a classy, paneled Paris apartment for Acts II and III, complete with ultra-high ceiling and an architecturally correct view of the neighboring buildings through outsized French windows.
Richard Nelson sees to it that a bright morning sun floods the well-appointed interior through those windows and William Ivey Long's array of costumes--demure for Tasker, divine for Collins--regally complete the picture.
At an admitted 58, Collins is a sleek, energetic performer whose glamour stems more from her sharp timing and quick wit than any artificial means of support (though one shouldn't undersell the power of those second-act red pajamas). But let's not quibble, Sybil. Even Margie Rynn's French maid Louise speaks halfway decent French in this production. And when was the last time that happened?
"Private Lives," Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends Jan. 4. $20-$40; (213) 480-3232. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
Joan Collins: Amanda Prynne
Edward Duke: Victor Prynne
Simon Jones: Elyot Chase
Jill Tasker: Sybil Chase
Margie Rynn: Louise
A Charles H. Duggan presentation, by special arrangement with Michael Codron. Director Arvin Brown. Playwright Noel Coward. Sets Loren Sherman. Lights Richard Nelson. Costumes William Ivey Long. Sound Tom Morse. Stage manager Judith Binus.