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Private First Class

The insults soar, but the passion lags a bit in Great Lakes' Private Lives.

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There's hardly anything more amusing than watching other people squabble. Virtually every TV sitcom throws family members or friends into ridiculous situations, where tensions escalate and sparks fly. And on occasion, this trite formula can be elevated to something resembling high art, such as the manically inspired screw-ups on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm.

A similar level of venomous hilarity was achieved back in 1931, when Nöel Coward starred on Broadway in his scathingly witty Private Lives, which plops a divorced couple, Elyot and Amanda, onto the shared balcony of a hotel where both are honeymooning with their bland new spouses. Rather than waving goodbye and changing rooms, as normal people might do, these two battling Brits can't stop themselves from zinging each other, even as they feel their old sexy sap rising to the surface.

The success of staging this classic love-hate relationship rests on the chemistry of the two leads; in Andrew May and Laura Perrotta, the Great Lakes Theater Festival has two exceptional performers who get all the negative vibes right, but never fully ignite the passionate side of their relationship. This in a production that exudes sensuality from all its design pores, including a candlelit Paris flat that looks as decadent as a Turkish whorehouse.

It all starts energetically at scenic designer John Ezell's handsome, forced-perspective Hotel Deauville, where Elyot is tolerating his new wife, the terminally naive Sybil (Kelly Sullivan, mewling in hypersensitivity). Elyot is a symphony of upper-crust mannerisms, and May plays them with panache -- and an oddly appropriate John Wayne lope. He also deftly delivers Coward's cut-crystal put-downs (after Elyot compares his bride to a kitten, Sybil notes ruefully that kittens eventually become cats. Elyot responds, "Let that be a warning to you"). Meanwhile, on the adjoining terrace, Amanda is revealing to her stuffed-shirt husband, Victor (a rather tame Scott Plate), that her ex is next door. "Why should our honeymoon be upset by Elyot?" Victor asks, and Amanda drily counters, "Why not -- my last one was." Inevitably, the reunited divorcées leave their spouses in the lurch and decide to shack up for a while.

The sparks struck in the breakneck Act I are somewhat dampened in the following two acts, which take place at Amanda's apartment. As Coward's hot-tempered cuckoos morph fitfully into lovebirds, the lines aren't quite as cutting. In addition, Perrotta's presentational acting style never enables her to relax into Amanda's surging passions -- regardless of how many times her silk-pajama-clad body is draped over or around Elyot.

Director Victoria Bussert clearly wanted to turn this Private Lives into a sophisticated yet lasciviously carnal delight, and she succeeds in many places. But she whips the pace along too fast at times, losing some diction in the haste. And occasionally her broad approach slips into buffoonery, with two (count 'em, two!) spit-takes and a snarky, over-the-top housemaid. Even though this deliciously icy, extra-dry martini turns a bit watery later on, it's plenty intoxicating.

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