Washington's critics may not be particularly fond of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and their "Private Lives," but the people , members of the opening-night audience, seemed to like what they saw, enough to give the pair a standing ovation.
They do that regularly enough at the Kennedy, so it wasn't that surprising , but it had to make the stars feel good about their official Washington opening, one that took place last night at the Kennedy center.
You've heard about this "Private Lives." Everyone has. The play was written by Noel Coward and was first produced in 1930, in Edinburgh, with Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in the leading roles.
A movie version appeared in 1931 (Norma Shearer starred), and in succeeding years the comedy was revived by Tallulah Bankhead and Donald Cook, Elaine Stritch and Russell Nype, Tammy Grimes and Brian Bedford, and Maggie Smith and John Standing.
The Taylor-Burton version is, however, a special one. Some have called it stunt theater, others, event theater. Whichever, it is special because Liz and Dick were the Burtons at one time, twice, to be exact.
They met in Rome, in the early Sixties, when they were doing "Cleopatra." She was married to Eddie Fisher, and he, to Sybil Burton, but True Love ended those marriages, and Liz and Dick became a couple.
Got all that? It's important. It gives this "Private Lives" special significance because, like the lovers in the play, Liz and dick married, split, then reunited, and when Taylor, as Amanda Prynne, says she doesn't think she will remarry because "marriage scares me," the laugh is on her.
There are other lines that take on double meaning, the leads in mind, but this is the best of the lot, and the stars do it with a minimum of overdo. She arches her head, he gives her a look, then, after the laughter subsides, he looks at her and says, "Yes."
"Private Lives is big news, not only because Burton and Taylor are in it but because they were so badly treated by the Boston and New York critics.
Much of the criticism was brutal in nature. The reviewers not only said the pair couldn't act (not here, at least), they also pointed out that Taylor is much heavier than she was.
Is she? Well, yes, she is, heavier than she was when she appeared in "The Little Foxes" at the Kennedy.
Does this take from the play>? Not necessarily. Taylor does look heavier than usual in the pajamas she wears in the second act, but he third finds her clothed in a purple outfit that very nicely serves as camouflage.
Aside from the extra weight and the fact that this is "event" theater, how is it?
Not bad. It isn't the best "Private Lives" you will see, but the stars are having fun with it, and much of this is transmitted to the audience.
She is better than he but only because this is not his kind of role. Burton has never been droll. He doesn't have it, and because the role asks that he be, he walks through much of the play. In trying to sound droll, he plays down, and Coward he is not.
Fair, however, he is. Give him that, and give something to Taylor for managing a nice enough English accent (she was born in London 51 years ago, of American parents) and for doing what she can with her lines, many of which go well.
Actually, "Private Lives" is almost actor-proof, so the stars do well, considering. However, when they are supposed to be battling with each other, they seem almost timid about it, as though they don't really want to hurt each other.
Here and there, they add a bit of physical humor that wins laughs. They don't, though, overdo. A drinking cup in the eye, things like that, and it all works very nicely.
Kathryn walker is Sibyl Chase, second wife to Elyot Chase (Burton), and John Cullum is Victor Prynne, second husband to Amanda (Taylor). They, and Helena Carroll, as a French maid (the comedy takes place in France), give the stars very sturdy support. They help make this "Private Lives" a generally pleasant but never spectacular "event."
The play, produced by Taylor's production company (The Elizabeth Taylor Group), will continue at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sept. 10.