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'Private Lives' Showcases Coward's Tart Wit

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'Private Lives' showcases Coward's tart wit



“I shall continue being flippant,” Elyot Chase declares with mingled defiance and delight near the end of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.”

This epigrammatic ethos reverberates in Coward’s 1930 comedy. In a shot-to-hell world, why not be witty, sardonic and irresponsible as all get out?

Thanks to Coward’s genius, “Private Lives’ ” dubious morality remains eruptively funny, as witness Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's fine-fettle production at Lydia Mendelssohn. Divorced five years, suave richies Chase (Stephen Hill) and Amanda Prynne (Laurie Atwood) unknowingly take adjoining honeymoon suites on the Riviera, with respective new spouses Sybyl (Astrid Zelazny) and Victor (Jim Nissen).

This seems perfectly plausible in Coward’s world of frivolous antics. In truth, Elyot and Amanda - who merrily re-elope, leaving Sybyl and Victor in the lurch - unnervingly fit Scott Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby” description of upper-crusters Tom and Daisy Buchanan: “They were careless people ... they smashed up things and creatures ... and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Mercurial and meager of conscience, Elyot and Amanda at one point literally smash up things. They’re constantly careless and selfish, prone to “savor the delight of the moment,” in Elyot’s words. He and Amanda even make mirth of the stranded Victor and Sybyl - “normal,” earnest drummers who are no match for either spouse’s passion, wit and demonic juvenility.

What redeems “Private Lives” into a guiltless classic is the jaw-dropping grace Coward employs in his nasty funniness. Inspired invective flies like bullets amidst Elyot and Amanda’s childlike propensity for mood changes, and Civic’s production neatly captures the reigning absurdity of it all.

Director Charles Sutherland moves the show at the snappy pace Coward's machine-gun dialogue constancy demands. Meanwhile, Atwood and Hill capture in a cute way their protagonists’ perpetually “up” demeanor - as though life were merely a giant play and Elyot and Amanda its reigning stars.

Credit the tall, gaunt Hill with special effort, since he’s basically miscast. A fine actor (“Candida,” “The Real Thing"), Hill isn’t physicallv right for flamboyant, feathery Elyot. Yet he still exudes enough bubbly charm to make caddish El an endearing monster.

Atwood ought to tiy smiling more, but in other ways he’s the comic-dramatic epitome of the histrionic, self-absorbed diva. Nissen is hilariously blunt as straight-laced Victor, at one point literally sweating with priggish rage. Zelazny’s often-sobbing Sybyl pointedly reminds us what a thin line “Private Lives” treads between farce and sadism.

Mijo Pappas-Delachaume works comic wonders in the tiny role of a French-speaking maid. Jim Posante’s art-deco apartment set makes a most amusing locale for avoiding subjects "much too serious to talk about.”

"Private lives" runs through Saturday, at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University Ave. Curtain is 8 p.m. nightly, with a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee. For information, call 971-2226.