Private Lives, Shakespeare Theatre Company

On Sunday night, I saw Private Lives at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.  On Thursday afternoon, the World Cup began. While that may seem like a non sequitur, I swear, I've got a cunning link in mind. Stay with me.

For years, I avoided soccer.  Nothing seemed more dull to me than the prospect of watching people run back and forth ad nauseum, kicking a ball back and forth and back again, earning thrilling scores like 0-0, 1-0, or maybe even a real scoring frenzy like 1-1.  But the World Cup happened and I had students who loved it and sucked me into their nexus of fandom and before I knew it, I found myself stealing hours away from a family reunion to watch the big games.  I still don't claim to be an expert or a superfan, but what I like so much about the best matches is the beauty of the set-up and the payoff of a goal.  That back and forth and back and forth- when it works- is incredible, and the excitement builds into a glorious crescendo of a GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL.  It's damn satisfying to watch, and it's a pleasure I'm so thankful to have been (dragged kicking and screaming the whole way) introduced to four years ago.

For years, I didn't so much deliberately avoid Noël Coward as much as I couldn't be bothered to seek him out.  Even if he is one of the brightest stars of twentieth-century British theatre, the only productions I seemed to be aware of starred big names and had even bigger ticket prices attached.  Grad school was much more concerned with making sure I read Corneille than Coward. Then along came STC's Design for Living and I was enchanted. Oh Coward, I referentially remarked to myself, where have you been all my life? (Probably having a drink and a cigarette and heaps more fun than any of us, I'm sure)

But the World Cup, what's that about?

I could speak about the beauty in this production. Coward demands beauty, and Allen Moyer's sets and Candice Donnelly's costumes play their part splendidly.  There is lovely work being done by Bianca Amato and James Waterston as Amanda and Elyot. Autumn Hurlbert is a successful Sybil, and I'm thrilled to see Jeremy Webb back at STC, doing a 180 turnaround from his last role at the Lansburgh as Don Juan to play Victor.  Director Maria Aitken has done excellent work in shaping the play- the second act in particular plays beautifully well as we watch the rise and fall of the reunited Amanda and Elyot play out again and again in miniature.

But that's not quite what I had in mind for my comparison. Instead, it's Coward's particular beauty of stagecraft that struck me this week.  If nothing delights me in a soccer match like the set-up, imagine how the opening of Private Lives hits me- two balconies; two honeymoons; two exes; one inevitable meeting.  As soon as those two balconies roll downstage, the set-up has begun.  It's perfectly crafted comedy- we know exactly where all this is going, and we're happy to settle back into our seats and enjoy the ride to get there.  What links playwrights Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward together isn't just their wit- it's their savvy in the nuts and bolts of playbuilding and set-up, and how to deliver the final twist of a joke that's been building for three acts.  

Coward might not be my all-time favorite playwright; I might not show up for every DC United home game.  But that doesn't mean that when the World Cup comes around, I won't tune in, and if the Shakespeare Theatre Company is staging Coward, I know I'll be there.


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