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‘Lives’ soars, and suffers, with stars

This version of Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy “Private Lives” illustrates both the risks and rewards of community theater.

The reward comes in seeing two remarkable local talents sink their teeth into Coward’s clever and catty dialogue. I refer to the two leads, Kevin Connell and Jone Campbell Bryan, who prove to be Coward interpreters of high quality.

Connell, a seasoned Shakespearean actor and now a teacher at Gonzaga Prep, has perfected the art of delivering lines like, “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs,” and make us laugh instead of recoil. In his velvet smoking jacket and jauntily held cigarette, his Elyot is the very embodiment of the sophisticated, jaundiced and comically deplorable Coward leading man.

Bryan, as his ex-wife Amanda, has perfected the art of getting maximum comic value out of even the driest Coward lines. With a delicious Gertrude-Lawrence-by-way-of- Tallulah-Bankhead delivery, she somehow manages to make even, “Oh, shut up,” sound like a stinging riposte.

And when she wraps her vocal cords around some true Coward insults, she really lets fly. When she learns that Elyot met one of his old flames in Norfolk, she responds dryly, “Very flat, Norfolk.”

When Elyot rebukes her for that remark, she looks up with her big, wide, flapper-like eyes and says innocently, “No reflection on her. Unless, of course, she made it flatter.”

It is no coincidence that the second act is the best act in this production. It consists mostly of Connell and Bryan alone in a Paris apartment, alternately cuddling up on the couch and attempting to brain each other with vases. Director Trevor Rawlins’ ability to create physical comedy pays off handsomely in these scenes.

One of the best exchanges comes when Amanda insists on putting some jazz on the Victrola. She turns her back to the audience (and Elyot) and swings her hips ever so subtly in a manner calculated to either drive Elyot mad with desire, or just plain mad. Elyot turns the record off. Amanda turns it back on. Elyot turns it off violently, scratching it. Amanda takes the record and shatters it over Elyot’s head.

The outcome may be preordained, yet Rawlins develops this scene so cleverly that it still seems funny and surprising.

Now, about that “risk” part. Elyot and Amanda are only two of four main characters. The other two actors, J.J. Renz as Victor and Rita O’Farrell as Sibylare not as effective.

I don’t think it’s their fault – they are simply miscast. Both seem too young; neither of them seem British enough. Victor, for instance, needs to be pompous and stiff, not fresh-faced and eager.

I don’t necessarily fault director Rawlins, either. Casting community theater productions is not always easy. The show originally scheduled in this spot, “The Philadelphia Story,” was scrapped after the Civic was unable to cast it properly. Sometimes, a director must choose good actors (and yes, Renz and O’Farrell are indeed good actors) in roles that just don’t quite fit.

One thing that fits perfectly is the set design by Peter Hardie. Whether on a veranda at a French seaside resort, or in a grand Parisian apartment, you’ll feel like you just fell into a pair of classic ‘30s movie settings.

“Private Lives” continues through April 23. Call 325-2507 for tickets.

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