Bright young sophisticates Amanda and Elyot divorced five years ago. Now they are each on honeymoon with new (and rather dull) spouses Victor and Sybil. Happily for theater audiences, both new couples have chosen the same sumptuous French hotel to celebrate their nuptials. After serious rows with their new mates, Amanda and Elyot accidentally converge on adjoining balconies and an evening of effervescent wit and charming cruelty is set in motion.
Private Lives is the epitome of the comedy of bad manners, perfected by Noel Coward between the world wars in London’s West End and on Broadway. By all critical accounts of the period, this thin, brittle piece of gossamer fluff was considered little more than a naughty audience teaser and pleaser. In his sharp essays, Coward the Playwright, biographer John Lahr quotes noted 1930s journalist Ivor Brown’s response to the play: “Within a few years the student of drama will be sitting in complete bewilderment before the text of Private Lives, wondering what on earth these fellows in 1930 saw in so flimsy a trifle.”
Brown was not alone in his estimation of Coward’s comedy. Theater history texts often relegate Coward to a single paragraph about British Theater. But this has not stopped his works from being constantly revived, from Broadway (most recently the 2011 production of Private Lives with Kim Cattrall) to other professional theaters (GTC Burbank produced a Private Lives, staged by Jules Aaron, earlier this year) to seemingly every community theater in the English-speaking world. In 1931 more than 200 plays and musicals opened on Broadway. Among the new plays in that group, Private Lives is the only one to have a serious afterlife, with frequent revivals into the 21st century.
So why does this play — and so many other Coward pieces — continue to thrive as their contemporaries withered? This is the question put to actors Joseph Fuqua and Julie Granata, who brought Elyot and Amanda to critically acclaimed life in last year’s Laguna Playhouse production, under the direction of Andrew Barnicle. A retooled version has now moved to the Rubicon Theater in Ventura. In separate phone interviews, both stars wax enthusiastic about the play, production, Barnicle and each other. It turns out one of the great reasons for the long life of the play is that artists don’t find it thin, brittle or fluffy. Instead they find it filled with real life and love within its sophisticated demeanor.
Twelve years ago Joseph Fuqua was the first actor to join the Rubicon Theater Company, and he thinks of it as his artistic home, where he has performed in nearly 30 productions, including the title role in Hamlet and varied characters in last year’s Irma Vep. The camp and overwrought caricatures of Irma Vep define much of Fuqua’s professional work, but he insists even the craziest characters must be played in truth. “I am a character actor in somewhat of a guise of a leading man.Â I have always been able to be a leading man to friends and people who know me, but the general theater world at large does not see me that way. Mostly I do chameleon-like roles — oddballs. I enjoy sinking my teeth in those roles.”
Fuqua’s take on Elyot begins with the light touch of Coward’s signature arch personality, but adds a strong strain of the real depth in love and anger that runs through Elyot’s relationship with Amanda. “People say I am born to be Noel Coward;Â he’s known for that urbane, detached wit — flippant and sophisticated without responsibility, always sort of surface. But the relationships are real. Their fight has got to be muscular.Â We have to hurt each other.”
Fuqua says that director Barnicle understands. “I am such a big fan of Andy’s because he goes there. Maybe because of the [general influence of the] Actors Studio, the heart and meat of any play has to be discovered. Things are funnier where there is heart. The Three Stooges don’t make me laugh, but Laurel and Hardy do because I know they care about each other.Â Charlie Chaplin makes me laugh because there is always some heart in there. You can see the course of human events in the humor. That is what we have tried to do and I think accomplished in the production.”
He is however, quick to point out that in order for the heart to work in a Coward play, the style must be in place. From correct dialect to perfect sets and clothing (even something as small as a cigarette case), everything needs to be right. With the outer world created, the inner characters can shine through.
In this case the characters’ incredibly selfish and undeniable emotional attachment is both horrible and horribly funny. Fuqua recalls the director helping him discover the way into both aspects of the play. “In his director’s notes, Andy tells us to delight and savor in the moment.Â Elyot is purely in the moment. All he wants is to pull Amanda into the moment with him. She has more of a moral compass, an outside eye of society. This might all be vapid in itself, but if you really allow the two characters to be really in love in that moment and let fly, then you are set up to attack the ugliness that also comes with relationships.
“But there’s nothing wrong with the moment if you can make it work. The humor is there in the surface things that are delightful, but the message about the complexity of love and being allowed to be yourself is powerful for a modern audience. Even if it is old, a good play can speak to a modern audience. A good play exposes the humanity in a way that people can relate to.”
Granata, who is enthralled with her role of Amanda, has no patience with those who dismiss Coward and, particularly, Private Lives.Â “I believe that an audience will go with you if you take them there with conviction. In entertainment across the board, modern sentiment is to play for the lowest common denominator — dumb things down and make things easy to absorb. I hate that! I think audiences are desperate for complicated story and complicated people. If you take something that has stood the test of time as Noel Coward has, and approach it with as much truth and humanity as you have within you, then people are going to recognize that truth at the end.Â That seems to me to be universal throughout all art. The more we just illuminate truth, the more people in the audience will recognize a piece of themselves. Then it doesn’t matter if they get some archaic reference.”
One specific reference is a line from Amanda: “I haven’t any peculiar craving for Chinamen or old boots!”Â In fact, Granata was so horrified by the racism of the line that she asked that it be stricken, but Barnicle insisted on keeping the script intact. The line does shock audiences out of their comfort zone for a moment and gives some interesting, if unpleasant, dimension to Amanda. Later Elyot has an equally questionable line for today’s sensibilities:
Amanda: I was brought up to believe it was beyond the pale for a man to strike a woman.
Elyot: A very poor tradition. Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.
As upsetting as the sentiment may be, it strikes a chord of relationship reality with Granata.Â “To be too illuminating about my own marriage, that is absolutely something my husband would say, to be funny in private.Â He’d never say it publicly, but to me he finds it absolutely hilarious.” That husband is Chicago improvisational comedian Eric Hunicutt. “He is very smart, very well read, and likes to say things purposely to rile me up. That is what Elyot is doing — trying to get Amanda’s pre-feminist feminism sentiments up. He’s trying to say something to irritate her. They want to get under each other’s skin.”
Granata is a self-confessed Anglophile. Her love of all things English began with an annual family TV evening of Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music. Her understanding of what it meant to be an actor came from realizing Andrews could be both Maria and Mary Poppins. Then she fell in love with Coward upon seeing an “adventurous” production of Present Laughter in a community theater in her childhood home of Toledo. She then got to act in the same play in Chicago as her first job after graduating with a theater degree from DePaul.
She recalls that first production. “They sound so sophisticated and fancy and everything I was not at 12. I don’t remember much about the production other than thinking if I could just wear more hats in my life, I would be a better person. That’s what I took away from that first production. Hats make you more sophisticated!”
Throughout her 20s Granata longed to play Amanda, but she was too young and found herself auditioning for Sybil some dozen times.Â “I am a horrible Sybil,” she claims.Â So why is she better for Amanda?Â “I want to say because I am mature, but I am going to guess it is because I am jaded.Â When I was younger I was always the person they made be the old lady or the mom. I was so angry about this at 15. Slowly, I realized this is the person I am going to be — I am a leading lady, but I am not an ingenue. My personality suits that better. I feel much more comfortable and feel like the last five years I have just been waiting and waiting.
“When I got the call for Amanda, it was the biggest, brightest day. I feel this is a beginning of a great part of my career. I have never been the person who bemoaned not playing Juliet. I didn’t do naive well at 14, and I don’t think I would have played her well in my 20s when most women play the part.Â But I am really looking forward to Lady Macbeth and after Amanda comes Martha. I had the pleasure of working with Mr. Albee and he is such an observer. I have had this fantasy of him sitting and watching a production of Private Lives and translating that to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.”
Even her favorite line from Virginia Woolf helps color her view of Coward’s lovers: “”˜George and Martha, Martha and George.Â Sad, sad, sad.’Â I think about that sentiment in the second act of Private Lives in that Amanda and Elyot are tragic and train wrecks, but wow, do we love watching that tragedy. Thank goodness they found each other in this beautiful world that Noel Coward created for us.Â The enduring line in Act 2 is “˜How long will it last, this ludicrous, overbearing love of ours?’ I think everyone in a relationship asks those questions.”
Another iconic line from Private Lives encapsulates the couple’s relationship — “That was the trouble with Elyot and me, we were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle.” With her longstanding desire to play Amanda finally met, the real test of the production would be her chemistry with Elyot — could they find that violent acid? At the first reading, sitting opposite Fuqua, any fears were abated. They fell into a rhythm instantly. “He is so clearly Elyot, and we are so meant to do this play together. Every moment we’ve spent in rehearsal and on stage is just a joy. I don’t know how that occurred, but the trust we had on day one — I can tell you with certainty that is rare. You get good at building that trust through tricks and skills, but it is magical when that trust and chemistry exists immediately.”
They were so in sync with each other and the “violent acids” that they would forget they were in a play telling a story. Fortunately, Barnicle was able to reel them in. Both Fuqua and Granata are grateful for Barnicle’s ability to know just when to step in. “You have this outside voice turning you back toward center if you get off the path — shining a light if you are not illuminating a particular piece of the story. In the best scenario, that is how theater works. The relationship between actor and director.”
Private Lives, Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E Main St., Ventura.Â Wed 2 pm and 7 pm, Thu-FriÂ 8 pm; Sat 2 pm and 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through September 30. Tickets $25 ““ $54. www.rubicontheatre.org. 805-667-2900.
***All Private Lives production photos by Ed Krieger