Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Private Lives
Arizona Theatre Company
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent review of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Sarita Ocón and Hugo E. Carbajal
Photo by Tim Fuller
Noël Coward wrote Private Lives more than 90 years ago, but his comedy of manners that focuses on the battle of the sexes, and specifically on a pair of bickering spouses who have a love/hate relationship with each other, is as timely today as it was when it first premiered in 1930. Arizona Theatre Company has made some changes to the original location and time period of Coward's play, some that work and some that don't, but with a fantastic cast and sharp direction it still results in a witty, fun, and lively version of this classic comedy.

The plot centers on Elyot and Amanda, who divorced five years ago after a volatile relationship. As the play begins, both have been remarried to younger spouses and are starting their honeymoons. However, when they discover they are in the same hotel in rooms next to each other that share an adjoining outdoor terrace, the embers of their relationship are rekindled. Can love overcome their constant bickering and fighting? And what's to become of their new spouses, Sibyl and Victor?

While the plot is fairly minimal, Coward's sparkling wit shines through in his smart and amusing dialogue and the many moments of madcap humor. However, for this production, the setting of the original play has been changed from France to Argentina and Uruguay, with act one set in Buenos Aires in 1931, and the characters are now South American instead of British, all of which work perfectly fine. However, what's a bit of a head scratcher is when act two, which is set in the play several days after act one and which the characters even refer to the short amount of time that has passed since the events of act one, here is set in modern times. The costumes and set shift from classic art deco designs, tuxedos, and gorgeous 1930s period evening gowns in act one to contemporary clothes, Apple watches, and a modern turntable in act two. If director KJ Sanchez is trying to show us that the theme and message of spouses who can't stand each other but also can't live without each other is timeless and still relevant today, we already get that from Coward's witty script; you don't have to hit us over the head with it by having act two set 92 years after act one, especially when the characters are the same and the references to time they state no longer make any sense.

With the exception of that somewhat odd distraction, the cast for this production excels in creating realistic characters and fully fleshed out portrayals under Sanchez's smart direction which, fortunately, also downplays the misogyny and somewhat dismissive attitude toward women in the script. Sanchez has staged the play very well, highlighting the burning romance of Amanda and Elyot with added moments of tango that the couples dance. Also, the violence in the piece is played more humorously than seriously.

Hugo E. Carbajal and Sarita Ocón are perfect as Elyot and Amanda, respectively. Volatile and on the brink of combusting at any moment, they create a believable, well-matched, and self-absorbed couple with plenty of chemistry who appear to love fighting with each other as much as they love making up. Carbajal excels in his ability to effortlessly depict Elyot's cavalier and flippant responses and his need to continually get under everyone's skin. Carbajal's physical comic abilities and facial expressions provide many pops of humor. Ocón is excellent as the sharp-witted and sharp-tongued Amanda. Her performance perfectly displays how Coward wrote Amanda as an unconventional woman, and her portrayal is infused with power and passion. She is also a skilled comical actor; the scene in which she serves coffee and brioche is a crowd-pleasing highlight.

Briana J. Resa and Brady Morales-Woolery also shine as the jilted lovers, Sibyl and Victor, who are each strangely preoccupied with their respective spouse's ex. Resa's humorous emotional tantrums are nicely balanced by Morales-Woolery's stuffiness and both create fully dimensional characters with solid stage presences that hold their own against the powerful ones by Carbajal and Ocón.

The creative elements are lovely. The scenic design from Tanya Orellana depicts a grand hotel terrace as well as a comfortable, modern living room. David Arevalo's costumes are smart and beautiful but also period and character appropriate. The lighting design by Brian J. Lilienthal evokes a gorgeous and romantic starry night in act one and warm touches in act two. Daniel Perelstein Jaquette's sound design complements the periods in the play as well as the romantic tango music, with passionate choreography that is danced well by the cast under the instruction of Kate Rosalik and Levi Anthony.

While it may have a thin plot, Noël Coward's Private Lives is a witty comedy that still resonates and shows how complex relationships are as mysterious today as they were almost 100 years ago.

Private Lives runs through May 28, 2023, at Arizona Theatre Company at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 602-256–6995.

Written by Noël Coward
Director: KJ Sanchez
Scenic Designer: Tanya Orellana
Costume Designer: David Arevalo
Lighting Designer: Brian J. Lilienthal
Sound Design: Daniel Perelstein Jaquette
Tango Instructors: Kate Rosalik and Levi Anthony
Fight Director: Dave Maier
Stage Manager: Christine Lomaka
Assistant Stage Manager: MyKel Marie Hall

Cast: (In alphabetical order)
Elyot Chase: Hugo E. Carbajal* Victor Prynne: Brady Morales-Woolery* Amanda Prynne: Sarita Ocón* Sybil Chase: Briana J. Resa*

*Member, Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States