Private Lives

By on 8 December, 2018 in Art, Fun, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

By Melissa Tubbs

Private Lives, the last play of the Cloverdale Playhouse’s 2018 season, is a fascinating experiment. The play suggests a hypothesis about what might happen if you were trapped an audience in a room with four loathsome screaming monsters for two hours.

The four monsters are all themselves trapped in webs of relationships with one another, but the audience is contained in proximity. As the lives of the characters unravel, the members of the audience may begin to wonder about their own lives. Where did things all go so wrong? Or at least, that’s one thing the audience might wonder if they weren’t so busy laughing at the banter that cuts across the interactions of these (mostly) drunk and (entirely) insufferable characters.

“Private Lives” is about the shallow and vapid lives of four exceptionally wealthy people in 1930s Britain. It’s The Great Gatsby, if Nick and Daisy and Gatsby were all replaced by clones of Tom Buchanan — racist and shallow, vain and impulsive, oblivious to world events and the suffering of anyone around them. They don’t even pay attention to the maid, as she suffers from an illness.

It’s possible that the play exists as a social technology to make audiences resent rich people, in which case it is a timely and potentially revolutionary piece of art. The performance opens with two sets of couples, each admiring a distant yacht, bobbing in the water from the balcony of their luxury hotel rooms. This object lust leads to the real thing, and a range of other disturbing passions, including domestic violence, and several kisses that rub uncomfortably up against modern ideas of affirmative consent.

All four characters are entirely self-centered and horrible. As such, it’s hard to commend any individual performer, but it’s worth noting that the sum total of this ensemble’s performance might be enough to cause someone to forswear brandy, if not love itself. As always, the Playhouse sets are really nice, and it was cool to see the total change between acts. Some folks worked really hard on this, and it shows.

But it was the subject matter, more than the design, that had us talking after the show. Five years before Noel Coward wrote Private Lives, F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby. That staple of high school English classrooms skewers Jazz Age narcissism and wealth inequality by contrasting the kind, literary nobility of Nick Caraway with the debauchery of Gatsby and his wealthy cronies. The text includes dark and mysterious portents about how Gatsby acquired his wealth, and whether his obsession over Daisy is a moral failing. Coward’s work is much shorter than Fitzgerald’s novel, and maybe that’s one reason that it lacks Gatsby’s nuance.

In any case, Private Lives has no such complexity. It’s two couples, simultaneously on honeymoons, each self-pitying and tiresome. And once you get tired, strap in, because these are pretty much the only characters you meet for the entire play. And they pace around. And they scream at each other. And they laugh and cry and make up and scream some more.

There are jokes. Many of these, including the repartee that wraps around them, seem to be foundational character sketches for modern antagonistic relationships. If you’ve ever seen a Tracy and Hepburn movie, here is some of your key source material. But these relationships, boozy and impulsive, may be a little raw for the mid-century heyday of the “screwball comedy.”

It’s interesting that this play was included in the Playhouse’s 2018 season of “Game Changers,” which we applauded greatly when it was announced. We were excited about some edgy material, and by and large this season has fulfilled our expectations. It’s really challenged us to think about the purposes and possibility of theater. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was one of the best performances we’d seen anywhere, ever. And we love that the Playhouse takes risks and tries to bring us challenging material.

This final offering was just a little harder than most, and maybe that’s the point of it. In a post here last week, Playhouse Artistic Director Sarah Thornton said that Coward’s work provided a kind of escapism similar to what reality TV offers today. But we’re not sure that’s true. Reality TV, like its older cousin, professional wrestling, has good guys and bad guys. Sure, they may swap around regularly, but there are still generally people to root for and against. Private Lives offers no such comfort or respite. Instead, you’re left sitting uncomfortably in your seat trying to decide how to feel when no sides merit sympathy.

And maybe, close to a hundred years after this play was written, there’s something very modern about this unsparing look at the beastly human condition. You don’t have to have a particular partisan bent to recognize that every day we’re deluged by relentless waves of what passes for information designed to wring out our most primal emotions. We’re supposed to take sides; we’re supposed to have someone to root for. But Private Lives denies us even that. Maybe this is why so many of the laugh lines land. Uncertainty finds provisional grounding in humor, while that lasts, at the same time that we find a way to interact with such uncomfortable material.

Private Lives is a play for the Trump era. It relies on the tensile strength that binds empty banter to lives without responsibility – again and again, until you’re exhausted. The characters here disdain old-fashioned ideas like kindness and virtue, which makes modern pundits lamenting the lack of civility seem a little bit even more nostalgic and obsolete. Rich people tangle up with each other, indulge impulse and base desire, and prattle on while the hired help sneezes in the background. It’s brutal, but it’s real.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.


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