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STAGE REVIEW : 'Private Lives': It's Still Word-Perfect


GARDEN GROVE — The opening night performance of GroveShakespeare's "Private Lives" was a little unsure of itself. But there was nothing at all unassured about Noel Coward's delicious, quick-witted comedy, which still has the stage legs of an insouciant chorus girl in spite of its 60 years before the footlights.

Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne are still the most elegant and carefree combatants ever to be pitted against each other in the ageless battle of the sexes. On the adjoining balconies of a posh hotel along the French seacoast, Elyot and Amanda, once married to each other, are commencing honeymoons with new partners. Discovering each other in the "cruelly deceptive" moonlight, they quickly rekindle their smoldering passions and escape impetuously to a hidden flat in Paris, followed, in good time, by their abandoned mates.

The sparks of this romantic conflagration are words: incisively witty, elegantly articulated thrusts and parries as only Coward could write them. Director W. Stuart McDowell's orchestration is rather imprecise when it comes to the grace notes of Coward's language, but the shape of the music is there. And it is augmented by some playful moments of character business that are the production's own, such as Elyot and Amanda's mutual love-patting on the window seat.

Wayne Alexander and Terra Shelman make a handsome couple as Elyot and Amanda, although the sexual chemistry between them is definitely not what brought that curtain rod crashing down during their embrace at the end of Act I. However, they play agreeably together and Alexander's understated Elyot is a nice foil for Shelman's ultra-arch Amanda.

Alexander's composure is belied early on by the manic glint in his laser-clear eyes, and he is particularly funny maintaining his dignity by whatever means possible through the whirlwind of the third act. Shelman's physical characterization is deliciously slinky and when she confesses, in her smoke-tinged voice through a broad grin, that she is "unreliable," there's no doubt that this is a lady who loves excitement.

Whether she loves Elyot is a question the production doesn't address, but champagne is mostly effervescence, after all, and Coward's play bubbles beautifully, even in a shallow glass.

The surprise success of the evening is Anne West as Elyot's hopelessly conventional young bride, Sybil. With her rubbery smile and wide eyes, which seem to have an expressive life of their own, West wrings abundant humor and a sympathetic humanity from a role that often is played in an incessant whine. West's Sybil may quibble, but she doesn't pout. As Victor, Amanda's very proper husband, Zook Norman is as clean-cut as his pencil mustache. When he tries out a variety of debonair poses meant to impress his sophisticated wife, Norman invests this deliberately priggish character with an endearing insecurity. Meg Gilbert's French maid, Louise, is a broad cartoon.

On the whole, the production relies upon physical comedy, some of which is inspired and some of which is overworked. When the swordplay is strictly verbal, things get a little dull. As far as the relationships go, McDowell seems to have taken Elyot's flippant credo of superficiality to heart.

Bradley D. Kaye's set design captures a sense of wealth and opulence at the price of a Promethean set change that involves some half-dozen workers with power tools. Ted Giammona's costumes function just as well with less fuss, and the juxtaposition of Amanda's velvet-encased hips sashaying out one door as Sybil bounces in at the other, clad in girlish blue chiffon, is a triumph of the costumer's art.

"Private Lives," the Gem Theatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees at 3, through May 15. $18-$24. (714) 636-7123, ext. 201. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Wayne Alexander Elyot Chase

Anne West Sybil Chase

Zook Norman Victor Prynne

Terra Shelman Amanda Prynne

Meg Gilbert Louise

A GroveShakespeare production of the play by Noel Coward, directed by W. Stuart McDowell. Lights: Ben Tusher. Set: Bradley D. Kaye. Costumes: Ted Giammona. Sound: Don Peterson. Choreography: Art Menke. Music: Chuck Estes. Stage manager: Sandra J. Velarde.

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