Dazzling repartee between the pair of divorced sophisticates at the center of “Private Lives” is one reason Noël Coward’s 1930 comedy of bad manners never goes out of style — though not the only one. Among frequent revivals, the Rubicon Theatre/Laguna Playhouse co-production stands out in capturing the profound and sometimes painful emotional currents that seethe beneath the witty bon mots lobbed with impeccable panache by ex-spouses Elyot (Joseph Fuqua) and Amanda (Julie Granata), for whom no daylight exists between feuding and reconciliation.
Remounted in Ventura with most of the cast intact from last year’s Laguna Beach run, Andrew Barnicle’s staging deftly balances situational hilarity with the poignancy of romantic illusion — starting with honeymooning Elyot’s wishful thinking that “Love is no use unless it’s wise and kind and undramatic.”
Fat chance — even in this opening scene any tenderness that Fuqua’s Elyot can muster for his naive, much younger bride (Alyson Lindsay) is laced with just enough acid from previous marital wounds to put the lie to this ideal. When Granata’s engagingly free-spirited Amanda coincidentally arrives at the same resort with a pompously conventional new husband (Matthew Floyd Miller) in tow, it’s clear her second marriage is a futile attempt to escape her own impetuous nature.
The unstable chemistry that drives Elyot and Amanda back into each other’s arms is convincingly visceral, and their second-act flight to her Paris apartment is a masterpiece of tonal orchestration; there’s near-musical precision in the way these fine performers can pivot from lovebirds to mortal combatants in a single emotional beat.
Director Barnicle’s comic flair extends to lulls in the warfare, particularly with the arrival of the abandoned spouses in the final act when the two couples, perched on a cramped settee, make a deliciously awkward attempt at small talk. Even Elyot and Amanda’s two-minute silent truces are filled with expressive physicality in their doomed attempts to keep from lapsing into old patterns. As timeless as human nature, “Private Lives” remains a wickedly insightful portrait of change we can’t believe in.
“Private Lives,” Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 30. $25-$54. (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.