In the late 1920s, Noël Coward got the flu while traveling in Shanghai. Instead of, say, staying in bed, lamenting the sickness the way you or I would (I know I’m a total asshole when I’m sick), Coward conceived a play, which he then wrote in four days.
Yes, you read that right. Four days. While sick. In Asia.
The result was Private Lives, one of the great wit’s wittiest plays. It centers on Elyot and Amanda, a divorced couple who have remarried. In one of those so-unbelievable-it’s-funny coincidences, they both end up in the same hotel on their respective honeymoons. Playful banter and romance ensue.
People often think of Coward’s plays as inconsequential fluff—light, flippant, and surface-level. But James Waterston and Bianca Amato, who play Elyot and Amanda in the Huntington Theatre’s production, assured me that underneath all those jocular exchanges lies something much deeper and insightful.
“It’s definitely a show to which you can just come, leave your troubles at the door and have a silly evening,” Waterston says. “But it also has a lot to say about how dangerous love is.”
“It makes it much more interesting,” Amato says of her role, “when you have those multi-layers. It’s what you look for in any human interaction. There’s always more going on.”
When it comes to acting in plays written by witty wordsmiths, Waterston and Amato are no slouches. They have both starred in productions of The Importance of Being Earnest by the great Oscar Wilde. They’ve both done Shakespeare. Waterston has tackled Eugene O’Neill. Amato has also been in plays by Tom Stoppard, Dylan Thomas, George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen. A play like Private Lives is their bread and butter.
The roles of Elyot and Amanda are roles many actors dream of playing. Both Waterston and Amato feel very lucky to get to do so.
“The great gift of life in this field is to be able to play the really interesting parts,” Waterson says. “So when you land on one of [the interesting parts], you know you have, not because of the famous people who have come before, but because it’s complex and interesting work.”
Amato has always wanted to play Amanda. She says that she found herself thinking, “Thank God I have a few more years to play it.” Now, she’s “thrilled.”
Director Maria Aitken has directed Coward’s plays before, as well as acted in them. “Maria’s a connoisseur of this kind of work,” Amato says of her. “So, we’re in good hands.”
Just as there is much more going on under the surface of the play, so too is there more work to put on a production of Private Lives. “All of the language, all of the wit. Fight choreography. It feels like a huge really rich dessert. I’m just chowing my way through it.”
A HUNTINGTON THEATRE PRODUCTION
FRI 5.25.12-SUN 6.24.12
264 HUNTINGTON AVE.
TIMES VARY/ALL AGES/$80