The first time you see a classic play, you should be careful to see a good production, because that memory will stay with you for the rest of your life. Fortunately, Camarillo Skyway Playhouse’s staging of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” which opened Aug. 17 and runs through Sept. 16, is a performance to be savored, for you are not likely to find better performances anywhere.
“Private Lives” is the granddaddy of that hoary script device that has flourished in sitcoms and drawing-room comedies for decades: a man and woman, once married, find themselves in the same hotel, in adjacent rooms, while honeymooning with their new partners. They each ditch their new spouses and hook up, resulting in highly flammable sparks.
The play is a tour de force for comedic actors, with its original stars being two stage giants: Gertrude Lawrence and Laurence Olivier. CSP’s production, co-directed by Mark Heulitt and Dean Johnson, stars Genevieve Levin (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Lawrence) as Amanda and Alan Waserman, in a rare comedic turn, as Elyot.
Amanda and Elyot are a delightfully schizophrenic couple, like a calm ocean in between tsunamis, all lovey-dovey and kissy-pooey until a spark ignites and sets them off. In the blink of an eye, they become like WWE combatants, flinging bric-a-brac and shellac phonograph records at one another in their hammerand tongs battles. The sudden transition between moods is what gives the show its forward motion, the audience waiting for the next explosion.
When he first sees Amanda, Waserman’s expression is one of shock, fear, panic and desire, all at once. He delivers Elyot’s lines as if he himself were painting them with bold, brilliant colors. “My heart broke on that damned trip around the world,” he coos to Levin in a despondent account of living without her. “I saw such beautiful things, darling. Moonlight shining on old temples, strange barbaric dances in jungle villages, scarlet flamingos flying over deep, deep blue water. Breathlessly lovely and completely unexciting because you weren’t there to see them with me.”
As Amanda, Levin is a force to be reckoned with, going toe-to-toe with Waserman as the insults fly and the romantic moments stack up. As Amanda says, her relationship with Elyot is “like a smoldering ember that periodically bursts into flame.”
Some of the best moments between Levin and Waserman are the musical ones: when they hear “their song,” dancing to “It Had to Be You,” and when Elyot sings “Some Day I’ll Find You” (which Coward himself wrote) at the piano, with Amanda joining in. Waserman is admittedly no singer, but his off-key vocalizing is effectively endearing, while Levin, a regular performer in musical theater, sings with a melodious soprano.
Playing Elyot and Amanda’s current spouses are Lauren Zika as Sibyl and Bill Sweeney as Victor. Zika is terrific as the insipid blonde flapper, one step away from such notable musical whiners as Miss Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls” and Lina Lamont in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Sweeney evokes the prissy, foppish characters often played by gap-toothed British comic Terry-Thomas and makes a wonderfully comic foil for Levin in their scenes together.
Theresa Secor makes a deliciously funny cameo as a suspicious Parisian maid, speaking only in French, expertly tutored by Vicki Hoskins. Dean Johnson’s setting for the seaside Deauville love nest in Act I is on the Spartan side; you’re not sure if the two couples share a balcony since there is no apparent partition between them. When the scene moves to a flat in Paris, the decor is much fuller, with a sofa, a portable phonograph, and all the throwing props necessary for Elyot and Amanda’s epic battles.
“Private Lives” runs through Sept. 16 at Camarillo Skyway Playhouse, 330 Skyway Drive, Camarillo. For tickets and information, call (805) 388-5716 or visit skywayplayhouse.org