If you think divorce is no laughing matter, you have not seen Noel Coward's "Private Lives." In any event, go see the expertly staged production at Baltimore's Everyman Theatre.
The late English playwright makes divorce-related arguments sound so witty that you would be happy to dress up in order to dress down an ex-spouse.
Standing on the terrace of an art deco-style French hotel in the 1930s, you'd nurse your drink along with your grudges. When the ex-spouse happens to show up on that same terrace, you would unleash perfectly phrased insults and then smile at your own cleverness.
This is the situation that opens Coward's play. Its three breezy acts are a model of comic construction, but it's the first act in particular that truly shines. Elyot Chase (Bruce Randolph Nelson) was not divorced very long before he married the considerably younger Sibyl (Erin Lindsey Krom). They're still enjoying the dreamy contentment of newlyweds, but that mood is snapped when Elyot looks up from a hotel terrace reverie to notice that his ex-wife, Amanda (Deborah Hazlett), is standing nearby. She is recently wed to Victor Prynne (Peter Wray).
It's a priceless moment when Elyot and Amanda first notice each other on that terrace, and their initial shock immediately gives way to a continuation of the arguments that resulted in their divorce.
Coward writes such sophisticated dialogue that even the harshest accusations arrive as if dressed up in a tuxedo and ready for a night on the town. Elyot and Amanda exchange their amorous insults with the facility of marital veterans.
Once the bewildered Sibyl and Victor enter the equation, "Private Lives" has more than enough melodramatic material to ensure that the second and third acts will have their share of arguments.
It's soon apparent that Elyot and Amanda have a love-hate relationship whose volatility far exceeds the emotional temperature of their more placid current marriages. Sibyl is a young and superficial society girl and Victor is a bit of a prig, but Elyot and Amanda are more seasoned in the romantic ways of the world.
The chance reunion of Elyot and Amanda rekindles a love that never really ended. Indeed, they would rather fight with each other than have pleasant conversations with their present spouses.
When the ensuing romantic complications eventually move from the seaside hotel to Amanda's apartment in Paris, the Everyman production is given ample opportunity to show off set designer Daniel Ettinger's knack for creating elegant architectural spaces for the squabbling couples.
Likewise, costume designer David Burdick has a fine time designing fashionable outfits for characters who look like they're ready to attend a high society party in an MGM movie from that era.
That setting really helps establish a classy mood for this Everyman production, and director Carl Schurr and his talented cast seem right at home there. Especially quick with a line reading or a facial reaction, Bruce Nelson is an absolute delight. He conveys how Elyot may be jaded and a bit past his prime, but still looks handsome and still knows how to verbally joust with the best of them.
Similarly, Deborah Hazlett conveys the mature sensuality that makes it evident that Amanda is a beautiful woman capable of holding her own in any war of words. Although Hazlett's performance was somewhat impaired by a few minor hesitations early in the show, it seems safe to assume these near-slips will disappear further into the run.
All of the Everyman actors are really enjoying themselves as they rush through a comedy that has a more-the-merrier philosophy where marriage, divorce, smoking and drinking are concerned.
It reminded me of watching Elizabeth Taylor as Amanda and Richard Burton as Elyot in a shamelessly self-referential production of the play at the Kennedy Center in 1983. Although "Private Lives" and, in a sense, the many lives it has had on stage over the decades may not set the best example where marital stability is concerned, it sure makes arguing seem like a lot of fun.
"Private Lives" has had its run extended through Dec. 11 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St., in Baltimore. Tickets are $10- $45. Call 410-752-2208 or go to http://www.everymantheatre.org.