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Good times had in 'Private'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After he finished writing "Private Lives," Noel Coward sent a copy of the script to his co-star, Gertrude Lawrence. She replied by telegram: "Your play is delightful and there's nothing that can't be fixed." Coward fired back: "The only thing to be fixed will be your performance."

At Center Stage, the performance of Melinda Mullins in the role created for Lawrence is the highlight of a production that is the finest of the three offerings in the area's current Coward festival.

Mullins plays tempestuous Amanda, who discovers on her honeymoon with her second husband that her first husband, Elyot, is honeymooning with his new bride in the very next hotel room. Early on, when Amanda's pompous new husband promises never to treat her the way combative Elyot did, Mullins' ironic response makes it comically clear that her second stab at matrimony is a mismatch.

Conveying intelligence and character, as well as sophistication and glamour, Mullins reflects Amanda's uninhibited independence in everything from her dark red hair to her determined bearing. If marriage to Elyot was, as she describes it, "like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle," Mullins' Amanda leaves little doubt that she was the catalyst.

One of director Irene Lewis' most cunningly staged scenes comes shortly after Amanda and Elyot re-encounter each other on their shared hotel balcony. To distract themselves from their already rekindled passion, Amanda asks Elyot to tell her about his world travels. As Tom Hewitt's Elyot speaks, however, it is evident in his besotted gaze and the mesmerizing tone with which he describes, for example, the Taj Mahal -- "unbelievable, a sort of dream" -- that he is actually expressing his feelings for Amanda.

If Hewitt's Elyot is slightly less successful, it's because his performance is slightly too broad. Though Amanda and Elyot flout conventional morality by running off together, they are still members of the British upper crust, and Hewitt seems more 1990s American than 1930s British.

Still, the skill with which Hewitt and Mullins deliver Coward's witty dialogue is as striking as the fervor they bring to their characters' love-hate relationship.

Their unfortunate second spouses, Nancy Bell and Boris McGiver, face the challenge of portraying folks too ordinary to sustain relationships with such "violent acids," yet attractive enough to have won their affection.

A pretty young woman who readily dissolves into tears, Bell is as convincingly sweet and immature as Mullins' Amanda is caustic and worldly. Designer David Burdick's first-act evening gowns reinforce this disparity. Mullins' apple-green gown is slinky and elegant; Bell's ruffly pink dress would be at home at the prom.

As Elyot's foil, the appropriately named Victor Prynne, McGiver strongly resembles John Cleese. And, in keeping with Cleese's screen persona, McGiver tends to overdo his character's stuffiness -- to the point where we wonder what Amanda saw in him. But then, a divorced woman had fewer options in the 1930s than today, and McGiver and Bell's characters are perfectly nice people. Nice is simply not what Amanda and Elyot require in a spouse.

In keeping with the protagonists' defiance of conventions, director Lewis and set designer Tony Straiges have done some unconventional things with the stylish production. The most unusual is the addition of an on-stage pianist (George F. Spicka), who sets the suave tone in the first act but proves distracting when left at the keyboard with nothing to do.

But overall, Lewis and company excel at depicting the play's urbane milieu. Equally important, they leave room for this comedy's serious theme. Underneath their flippant frivolity, Amanda and Elyot are mature adults determined to live life to the fullest. This spirited production is a testament to that philosophy.

'Private Lives'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays, matinees at 1 p.m. May 29 and 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays; through June 9

Tickets: $10-$37

Call: (410) 332-0033

Pub Date: 5/17/96

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