“Private Lives” – Arizona Theatre Company

Theater Review – May 14, 2023


Arizona Theatre Company, Center Stage, Herberger Theater Center
Phoenix, AZ

By Chris Curcio
Theater Critic

When a production of Noel Coward’s 1930 “Private Lives” is witty and brilliant, audience guffaws start immediately as the complicated characters, limpid dialogue, and wacky plot are revealed.   But all the play’s comic malarkey is missing in the Arizona Theatre Company dry staging where KJ Sanchez’s listlessly lethargic direction traps the slyly amusing play.  Add bland acting, sketchy sets, and drab costuming that all fail to bring the play to its comically spiffy elegance.

The play itself continues to shimmer and rock with comic irreverence as the characters debate misplaced divorce as two couples celebrate honeymoons in adjoining hotel rooms but the changes in the play never work and destroy it.

The flat and none-too-comic changes don’t work in a play originally set in Europe.  Here it has been transported to South America where Coward’s riotous wit and clever characterizations don’t fit. Another weird alteration is that the play’s first act is set in 1931 but the latter two acts shift to contemporary times but the characters never age which makes no sense.

The resulting production is the weakest ATC production I’ve ever seen and my ATC experiences go back to when ATC first brought shows to the Scottsdale Center for the Arts in the early ‘80s.

ATC’s opening night audiences usually jump to their feet at the curtain call but with this “Private Lives” the laughs were slow throughout and the standing ovation was slow to materialize as the curtain calls concluded quickly.

Aside from the setting shift which didn’t work, the meandering direction stymied the production and the four-person acting ensemble lacked the requisite comic timing to make Coward’s characters interesting and the plot zing along with comic acumen.  Only Hugo E. Carbajal as Elyot Chase added small bits of comic delight that bordered more on slapstick mayhem than sophisticated tomfoolery.  The rest of the ensemble sputtered as they lacked essential comic chicanery.

Briana J Resa’s Sibyl Chase was only engaging in the play’s plodding second half when she and Elyot spared a bit as they remembered the good and bad of their ill-fated marriage.  Sarita Ocon’s Amanda Prynne was dryly dull and Brady Morales-Woolery’s Victor Prynne couldn’t have been less interesting as he faded into the tacky-looking scenery.

Throughout the years, I’ve seen good “Private Lives” productions.  Who could forget San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre’s magnificent staging in the 1970’s that featured the husband/wife duo of Peter Donat and Michael J. Learned.  They glistened in a beautiful European-flavored production.  Even Joan Collins at ASU Gammage many seasons ago brought the show’s biting wit and vibrant comedy timing to solid rapture.

It’s sad when Arizona’s official state theater crafts such a dull production of Noel Coward’s radiantly droll “Private Lives.”  It continues through May 28 at the Herberger Theater Center.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the Arizona Theatre Company box office at 833-ATC-SEAT.

Grade: D