Andrew Barnicle, foreground, on the set of "Private Lives," his last directing project with Laguna Playhouse.] (Photo courtesy of Ed Krieger, Coastline Pilot / March 17, 2011)

All good things must come to an end, and for Andrew Barnicle, his 20-year stint as artistic director of the Laguna Playhouse winds up with his revival of Noel Coward's "Private Lives," opening this weekend.

For Barnicle, the past two decades have been filled with challenges, effectively counterbalanced by a goodly number of laughs — including, he promises, the current production.

"There hasn't been a local professional production (of 'Private Lives') in some time, and it's funny as hell," the director said. "Ultimately, the funny part is what drew me, but I'm discovering very subtle social themes of personal freedom underneath the comedy."

Among the challenges in such an endeavor, Barnicle points out that "American audiences and actors have pre-conceived notions and expectations about Coward, so creating a new production from the ether is a challenge.

"Monitoring accents and physical behavioral things can take a lot of attention away from what's actually happening in a scene," he added. "Mostly though, there is more play here than meets the ear. Making it look easy is harder than one would expect."

Reflecting over the past 20 years, Barnicle notes that "a lot of things have changed over those years for all theaters. Subscription bases have declined, which is probably the most significant thing, and donor monies get harder to come by year after year.

"Theaters are more reliant than ever on single ticket sales on a show-by-show basis," he continued. "That puts us all in a 'hit or fail' mentality, which makes programming an exercise in caution. It is a sea change from the days when the nonprofit theaters were created in order to present works that the market would never bear."

As for his time in Laguna, Barnicle cites his current production of "Private Lives," along with "Moonlight and Magnolias" and "Red Herring" as "standouts in my mind, probably because they were recent."

Other shows such as "Kevin's Bed," Laughter on the 23rd Floor" and "Don't Dress for Dinner" make the director's list of favorites, "but that's because I remember audience laughter, I guess, more vividly than anything else.

"My greatest pleasures are all of the good actors I got to work with over the years, and the opportunity to put together world premieres with playwrights like Bernard Farrell and Richard Dresser in the room with me," he declared. "One thing everyone will probably agree upon — we laughed a lot."

"Private Lives" opens Saturday after a week of previews and will continue through April 10 at the Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road. Performances will be given nightly except Mondays, and tickets may be reserved by calling the box office at (949) 497-2787.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Coastline Pilot.