top of page
  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

Noël Coward's "Private Lives" at Irish Classical


 a woman
Jenn Stafford, who plays Amanda

Writing about Noël Coward in 1933, critic George Jean Nathan opined, “Mr. Coward occupies the successful place in our theater today that the late Clyde Fitch occupied twenty and thirty years ago… though Mr. Coward has not yet contrived anything nearly as good as Fitch’s The Truth. And both have been overpraised and overestimated ridiculously. Where are the plays of Fitch now? Where will the plays of Mr. Coward be when as many years have passed? I leave the answer to the calendar.”


Well, the calendar has answered. 


Here we are, 94 years after the debut of Private Lives, a comic masterwork among numerous comic masterworks by Noël Coward, and he is still making us laugh. The current production of Private Lives, meticulously directed by Chris Kelly at the Irish Classical Theatre Company, vividly reminds us why. 


This smart and brisk production demonstrates that the play's structure is perfection; the jokes are clever and constant; and the dilemma is both original and universal. 


Private Lives revolves around a divorced couple, Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne, who, quite by chance, find themselves honeymooning with their new spouses in adjacent rooms at the same hotel on the French Riviera. Realizing that they still have feelings for each other, despite their past volatile relationship, they impulsively decide to run away together, abandoning their new spouses.


Kelly has populated the world of the play with a team of Buffalo’s best actors. Ben Michael Moran plays Elyot Chase, who is now married to Sibyl Chase, played by Anna Fernandez. Jenn Stafford plays the former Mrs. Chase, Amanda Prynne, who is now married to Victor Prynne, played by Darryl Semira.


Got that? Don’t worry. I’ll recap.


Elyot and Amanda are a divorced couple.


Elyot is now married to Sibyl. 


Amanda is now married to Victor.

a man
Ben Michael Moran, who plays Elyot

Impressively, Moran, who plays Elyot, took over for another actor after rehearsals were already underway. He has a natural talent for comedies of manners, and he navigates the character’s witty rejoinders with an air of casual self-confidence.  


Stafford too, has a natural talent for making the difficult look nonchalant. Her Amanda is a delicious concoction of charismatic poise and libidinal recklessness as she steers this famed comic creation through the contours of her romantic dilemma.


Moran and Stafford are delightfully matched as they play against (and with) each other. Their boisterously scathing banter is brilliant, and we want them to be together.


A brief explication of the play will help explain what I found so satisfying about this production. 


The dramatic tension here is a consistent pull between the opposite impulses to normalize and to escape that repressive state. Sibyl and Victor represent the normal; Elyot and Amanda are decidedly free spirits, who, despite their greatest efforts, are irresistibly drawn back to their more unconventional desires. 


In perhaps the most important speech of the play, Amanda lays out a vital reality of the human condition in response to Victor's assertion that he’s glad he’s “normal.” 


Amanda replies, “I’m not so sure I’m normal. I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives. It all depends on a combination of circumstances. If all the various cosmic thingummies fuse at the same moment, and the right spark is struck, there’s no knowing what one mightn’t do.”


Recall that this exchange comes from the pen of a gay man writing during the 1930s. Having this in mind might give the audience of 2024 a far more potent and less frivolous empathy for the suggestion that, if “the right spark is struck, there’s no knowing what one mightn’t do.”


That knowledge might also help us understand what George Jean Nathan was missing, or what he was avoiding in 1933. One person’s morality is another person’s very design for living. 


And so, what makes Stafford so wonderful is that she skillfully fluctuates between Amanda’s madcap unconventionality, and those soulful moments when she endeavors to explain that eccentricity. On the one hand, she can commit to smashing a gramophone record over her ex-husband’s head; she is equally adept at soothing her current husband’s confusion and wounded pride. Stafford makes those journeys with clarity and often powerful impact. She is also magnificently funny.


For his part, as Elyot, Moran creates a man who is sincerely surprised to realize that erratic and unreliable Amanda represents his comfort zone, while safe, reliable Sibyl is out of this depth. Listen as he patiently explains to Victor that flippancy is the best reaction to his situation. Elyot must consistently strive to make total sense out of things that Victor and Sibyl think are total nonsense. Moran commits to this effort absolutely and hilariously, as he winningly melds Elyot’s self-assurance with his bewilderment. 


While the roles of Elyot and Amanda are tour de forces of endurance and tennis matches of fluctuating objectives, the roles of Sibyl and Victor are, arguably, even more difficult. The play clearly throws its sympathy behind Elyot and Amanda’s unconventional immorality. For the comedy to work, however, the new spouses must seem legitimately motivated and real in their tiresome conventionality. 

a woman
Anna Fernandez, who plays Sibyl

Fernandez gives a rather astonishing performance in that regard, for she has endowed this woman, typically played as cluelessly superficial, with an intellect. When Elyot asks his new wife if she intends to “understand,” “manage,” and “run him” without his knowing it, Fernandez fascinatingly plays the moment by withdrawing from him in a manner that suggests she is simultaneously offended and ever so slightly flattered. More than priggish and petulant in her conventionality, this Sibyl exhibits a spark that will make the final moments of the play – wherein Victor and she enter into an unfamiliar realm of interpersonal reaction – all the more satisfying. 

a man
Darryl Semira, who plays Victor

Kelly was clearly going in a fresh direction in casting Darryl Semira as Victor. Consummately patriarchal, this is a man who speaks in platitudes, is ready to raise his fists to defend a woman’s honor, and who has an utterly traditional view of gender roles. Victor is typically played as the epitome of traditional British masculinity, proper, polite, earnest, and dull. This is not a role that screams Darryl Semira, an actor who plays characters imbued with vulnerability, sometimes a note of mischievousness, and who know how to laugh. In this case, however, Semira leans hard into a quality in Victor that turns out to have untapped potential: he is naive about love. Falling in love with a woman like Amanda has placed Victor far outside his area of understanding and this unmoors him. It is fascinating to watch Semira play Victor’s unmooring and his subsequent latching onto seeming conventional, seemingly reliable, and seemingly vulnerable Sibyl.


Kelly’s use of the Andrews Theatre, which is in the round, is an impressive showcase of economy and dynamically shifting stage pictures. Under his charge, the wide-open space proves to be an asset to the play. The script requires a total scene change, the likes of which has been death to more than one production at that theater, but here, Kelly has playfully and appealingly covered over the mechanics with the formidable talent of Maria Pedro, who plays “Louise,” the French maid.


Pedro usually plays leading roles and has obviously been enticed into playing this minor part by the fun doing Noël Coward and for the added deliciousness of getting to tear up the stage by comically singing musical numbers between the acts. She sets the tone by opening the show with her outrageous rendition of that Frank and Nancy Sinatra hit, "Somethin' Stupid." She openly admits, at one point, that she will continue to sing until they finish moving the scenery. Then she clicks into one of Coward’s most well-loved servant characters with gusto. She’s a delight.


The scenery that is being changed is yet another effective design by David Dwyer. Stylish and efficient, Dwyer’s work evokes time, place, and mood with simplicity and flair.


The costumes by Vivian Del Bello are similarly superior, down to the smallest detail of each two-tone shoe. Take a look at the stunning dressing gowns on Amanda and Elyot. They are sumptuous. The suits on the men; the clothes on the women.  It is all just so Noël Coward.


The lighting by Matt DiVita was surprisingly complex for a traditional comedy of manners. If you are expecting the typical “lights-on / lights-off” plot, watch more closely as he deftly and subtlety uses light to underscore the rising and falling action of each scene.


Fight direction is a major element of every production of Private Lives. Here, Steve Vaughan’s work advances the story and provides some of the evening’s best laughs. 


While the pace of the production is appropriately rapid, in the first act particularly, the jokes are not given enough time to breath as the actors race through their paces. By Act Two, things have settled down. Such a fine cast is certain to refine this further by playing in front of audiences. Don’t wait too long to see this excellent production, however. Private Lives is only running through June 30th.


bottom of page