Noel Coward's "Private Lives," written in 1930, is a decade younger than the Laguna Playhouse, at which this classic comedy is being joyously revived with its verbal barbs flying as fast as the props the actors hurl at one another.
Coward defined "sophisticated comedy," and directed and played the leading role in the original production (the second lead being taken by a promising young actor named Laurence Olivier).
At Laguna, director Andrew Barnicle — in his swan song as the playhouse's artistic director for the past two decades — is an excellent actor, but he's not pulling a Coward and taking the stage as well. Not with the likes of performers such as Joseph Fuqua around.
Fuqua and Julie Granata assume the principal roles of Elyot and Amanda, a divorced couple who meet on their respective second honeymoons five years after splitting up and pick up the romance all over again, leaving their stunned spouses in the lurch.
Their incendiary personalities, which touched off the breakup in the first place, haven't subsided over time, however, and it's not long before they're at each other once again, both with withering words and flying set pieces. Naturally, their abandoned mates (Matthew Floyd Miller and Winslow Corbett) drop by for an animated bit of four-handed mayhem.
Barnicle is at the top of his form in his farewell directorial thrust, keeping both the action and the dialogue richly robust — Elyot's lines include the famous observation that "women should be struck regularly, like gongs," although Coward draws the line at such unchivalrous behavior.
Fuqua gives Elyot a lofty plane from which to view the play's other characters, and he soon finds himself out on the proverbial limb as the other three sip tea and dissect him from a short distance. He's a fellow who revels in his own eccentricity, and Fuqua captures this aspect splendidly.
As the fiery Amanda, Granata oozes sophistication and wit, erupting only when verbally prodded by her once and future love. On these occasions, she's a clawing hellcat, beautifully predatory until calmed by their "safe phrase," which effectively neuters both combatants.
Contrasting forces — from their spouses and from each other — are excellently portrayed by Corbett and Miller, who are characterized by antic emotion and stiff-upper-lipsmanship, respectively. Corbett is delightful in her fits of righteous outrage, while Miller cools things off with his proper English demeanor. Both are far more than supporting personalities.
Completing the stage picture is a Parisian maid, Julia Etedi, who speaks nothing but French throughout her brief appearance. She may be incomprehensible, but she's a hoot, nevertheless.
Bruce Goodrich's elegant setting and Julie Keen's colorful costumes enrich the production considerably, as does the subdued lighting effects of Paulie Jenkins.
"Private Lives" is indeed an oldie at 81 years, but its biting wit and comic wisdom could have been created in the 21st century. The Laguna Playhouse has nailed this classic comedy.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Coastline Pilot.
If You Go
What: "Private Lives"
Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays until April 10
Cost: $31 to $65
Information: (494) 497-2787 or http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com