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Scathing Wit at Theatreworks

Theater review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Dec 3rd, 2016

Noël Coward’s 1930 hit Private Lives symbolically reflects the Great World Depression by stripping the cast down to five actors in what is essentially a two-character comedy. This was, for its time, Spartan economy. Eighty-six years later the play still holds water. There have been numerous productions of it in England over the past decade and now it appears at Theatreworks in New Milford under director and set designer Frank Arcaro, who judges this play to be Coward’s theatrical masterpiece. This polished production stars Jonathan Jacobson and Vicki Sosbe as Elyot and Amanda, two lovers caught in the coils of long-time love amid ageless grudges and scars. They are a real joy to watch. The improbable story of a divorced English couple on honeymoon in France meeting their divorced counterparts on a parallel honeymoon launches the illusion of love as the most absurd yet universal romantic obsession.

The first act is all stand-up English drawing room witty patter, while the second act offers raucous romper room furniture throwing, the third act devolving into near stichomythia insult. The rapid pacing of the first act belied insecurity due to lack of action. Some of these jokes are by now stale, yet slower pacing in places might have wrung more emotion and humor from them. Yet everyone wants to arrive at the fireworks of the second act, which inspired Edward Albee to pen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). Here in a gorgeously decorated Paris flat, we enter the underworld of witty insult and slapstick where everything is turned upside down in pell-mell fashion. What was in its day blasphemous and risqué, now appears nearly bland, while the love-hate psychomachia floats airily above the mutations of time. This dark underworld is so funnily unfunny that it remains real with an abiding wisdom to challenge the glossy and glib surface wit that labors in fitful breeze for audience attention. By the end of the third act we are moved to a reprieve: Elyot and Amanda are still united in the purgatory of mutually destructive love, while audience voyeurs are off-the-hook. The catharsis is that we are not them to that degree—we are all relieved that we resemble these semi-gods to a lesser degree. (This sado-masochistic see-saw in love was first pioneered by Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.)

Anna Fagan and J. Scott Williams play the shadow couple. In this production, there’s an American cartoon twist: the characters Sybil and Victor are the more human, lesser losers of no interest because of their superficiality and lack of intelligence. Here their costumes recall Olive Oyl and Popeye, perhaps even that pathetic debasement of Coward’s wit and formula, The Honeymooners television sit-com. In the Anglo-Irish tradition of Oscar Wilde, we admire the more civilized panache and flippancy of self-deprecation clothed in silk and jewels than feeble petulance and bravado adorned by frustration and anger.

As with most three act plays, the first act remains merely background. Jacobson and Sosbe shine in the second act where passions flame. The third act functions as lightly amusing Greek satyr play, providing parodic send-up of the frightening fireworks. These fireworks are most worthy of your attendance.

This production runs for five weeks through the holiday season, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $23 and reservations can be made online at theatreworks.us or by calling the box office at 860-350-6863.

Like many small theaters, they have fallen on difficult times. Connecticut, as part of their general cuts in funding all art, has reduced their support by 95%.