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Everyman Theatre pries delightfully into 'Private Lives'

If love were all, relationships might be terribly boring. That couples are apt to encounter, with some frequency, various frictions of a non-amorous nature may well be what keeps them stuck together. It sure can make them fun to watch.

So Noel Coward reminds us in "Private Lives." An antic revival of this 1930 comedy of bad manners is currently ripping up the boards at Everyman Theatre.

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In a fast-paced three acts, Coward generates a clever, witty whirl from a simple set-up. At a seaside French hotel, Amanda and Elyot, now divorced, collide on their honeymoons with fresh spouses. It turns out that the old emotional bonds between the two were not as neatly severed as the legal ones.

The playwright, who often seems to be channeling Oscar Wilde in the quip department, skewers notions of romance, fidelity, compromise, sensitivity — you name it.

"Let's be superficial and … enjoy the party as much as we can." Elyot tells Amanda. Forget being sensible or serious. That's "just what they want," all those "futile moralists who try to make life unbearable."

The more Elyot and Amanda thwart conventionality, ...

Everyman Theatre pries delightfully into 'Private Lives'

and the more they fall back into the fierce squabbling that sent them to divorce court, the more obvious they are made for each other. Whether they can ever realize and deal with it is the question mark that keeps the play spinning.

And spin it does in this production, the first work directed for Everyman by one of the company's longtime resident actors, Carl Schurr. He gets tight ensemble work from a cast headed by local favorites Deborah Hazlett, as Amanda, and Bruce Nelson, as Elyot.

Neither performer summons a consistently convincing up-market British accent, but that's a small matter in light of the volatile chemistry between them.

They handle the verbal and physical comedy of their roles with panache. The drag-out fights are, of course, the most entertaining. (It does make you feel awfully wicked these days, though, to laugh when Elyot declares that "some women should be struck regularly, like gongs.")

Although Hazlett and Nelson tear into those battle scenes with a vengeance, they also make it possible to detect what's really going on behind the barbs, under the umbrage.

Coward clearly gave the best material to Elyot and Amanda. (He and the great Gertrude Lawrence played these parts triumphantly onstage; the sometimes stormy friendship of the two artists provided inspiration for the play.) But the other characters can gain nearly equal footing if performed with enough bold and imaginative flourishes. That's what happens here.

Erin Lindsey Krom has a bright romp as Sibyl, Elyot's airy bride. And Peter Wray, looking like one of those twitty, tweedy types in Monty Python skits, leaves an amusing imprint as Victor, Amanda's on-the-rebound husband, who cannot abide Elyot's "incessant trivial flippancy." Krom and Wray have the accents down nicely, too.

And Sophie Hinderberger makes the most of her cameo as a temperamental French maid.

Daniel Ettinger's sets look almost too meticulous and pristine, but they allow the antics to flow easily in decidedly handsome surroundings. The costumes designed by David Burdick punch up the atmosphere; Amanda's classy outfits are especially evocative, like something from a vintage MGM movie.

A songwriter capable of considerable melodic charm, Coward added a crucial musical element to "Private Lives" in the form of a lilting waltz, "Someday I'll Find You." (It's integrated smoothly into this production, including a nice vocalized version by Nelson.)

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There's a line from the rarely heard intro to that song that pretty much captures the essence of the play: "Can't you remember the fun we had? Time is so fleet."

PHOTOS (by Stan Barouh) COURTESY OF EVERYMAN THEATRE

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