Consider Marshall W. Mason's insights on the current Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of Private Lives, that lighter-than-air romp Noel Coward claims to have dashed off in four days in 1929. The plot (such as it is) concerns the impetuous antics of the once-married Elyot and Amanda, who rediscover one another during their respective second honeymoons. As in Shakespeare's Othello, these two love each other "not wisely, but too well" -- only this time with more amusing results.
In his notes, Mason writes that he approached Elyot and Amanda "as human beings who ... are caught between two world wars.... The world economy was entering a great depression, and terrorist nations hovered on the edge of the future with the threat of annihilation."
Enough already! Such dark comments only succeed in enshrouding a frivolous comedy in a gloomy pall. So let's clear the air. Private Lives may well have been written after World War I, but the play exists in an insular, timeless vacuum -- as confirmed by the fact that its most famous line, the now socially explosive "Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs," still elicits a hearty laugh. And, plot externals to the contrary, Private Lives is not really about people reaching for a second chance at love, because it's not about real people at all. Elyot and Amanda are not fleshed-out human beings. They have no backstory, no history, no subtext.
So what is Private Lives? It is an elaborate actors' exercise with a very specific intent. Imagine going to a volleyball game where the sole goal is to keep the ball high in the air for the entire match. Don't worry about hitting it over the net; just keep that bouncing ball aloft. That's what the actors must strive for here, not by creating characters with mustaches and wigs but by exploiting their personalities and egos -- and all the direction in the world about depressions and terrorist nations isn't going to help one jot.
Fortunately, as Amanda, Mary Proctor is ideally cast. Shoehorned into exquisite gowns that make her look like a flute of pink champagne come to bubbling life, she deftly plays Amanda to the hilt. Don Burroughs' Elyot is somewhat more problematic. In Act 1, especially, when he is encumbered by an ill-fitting dinner jacket, one senses that Burroughs has been directed to "be" Noel Coward. Big mistake. What the actor should do is to relax, be himself and trust in his own technique. And indeed, in Act 2, when wearing stylish, loose-fitting pajamas, his performance loosens up commensurately.
In fact, Burroughs relaxes so much that he initiates the evening's most revelatory moment. During a self-imposed hiatus from his constant bickering with Amanda, Elyot begins to tinker at the piano. His first selection, Coward's wistful "I'll See You Again," is an inspired choice. Next he performs the classic Jerome Kern ditty "Who?" By medley's end, Elyot and Amanda are once again happily reunited, and together they croon Coward's haunting "Someday I'll Find You."
During that charming, lambent interlude, Private Lives is exposed for what it truly is: Behind its veneer of showy elegance, it is a minor masterwork of pacing and construction. No wonder this homage to superficiality has never left the public favor and likely never will, for it is indestructible, impervious to all the misguided interpretations that have been heaped upon it through the decades. Here, too, at the Rep, the audience-pleasing Private Lives remains forever foolproof.