The old Kitchen, located in the colonnaded, antebellum Cayuga Hotel,
was famously cramped. Many audiences thought this was an asset; with
only 73 seats, every one is certain to be good. Actors felt differently.
Running quickly offstage could bring your nose smack into a wall. And
making an entrance from stage left could mean going outdoors, even into
the rain or snow, before starting with your lines.
The new place is still “bold and intimate” (part of the company’s
slogan), with a grand total of 99 seats. But now it’s possible to walk
perhaps 20 feet up and down the stage, not just laterally. Assuredly,
jokes can get more laughs with distance.
The new stage is also open on three sides. As you look at the
costumed players before you (thanks to Lisa Boquist for the sexy period
duds), you can look beyond them to see audience members, often
guffawing, in Ithaca street wear. With the Kitchen’s more usual fare,
contemporary and edgy, we’re prepared for the implicit postmodernist
effect. Noel Coward, however, wrote for a proscenium arch, where the
audience is supposed to suspend disbelief, even when Coward played
Elyot, reading his own lines. What Perry’s Private Lives shows us, then, is that Coward’s personal and verbal frisson thrives
in contemporary staging. All those lines we know (She: “How was China?”
He: “Very big.” She: “How was Japan?” He: “Very small.”) are still
gleaming gold when we’ve thrown disbelief aside.
A much greater surprise for Kitchen regulars is to see Brian Dykstra,
Perry’s usual leading man, as Elyot. Although he is a resident
elsewhere, Dykstra has been a familiar presence around the company for
four years, often in works of his own composition, like last Christmas’
one-man rant, Ho!, or his verbal beating of George Carlin at his own game, A Play on Words (February
2009). When composing his own persona, Dykstra comes off as bearish,
irascible and nearing the working classes. His costume often includes a
loud sport shirt with the tail hanging out.
In building a new Elyot, banishing Coward’s savoir-faire, Dykstra
begins with a flawless Oxbridge accent. “Girls” is pronounced “guhls.”
The glint in this Elyot’s eyes implies a barely suppressed madness,
affronted by the absurdity of finding his ex-wife Amanda (Carol
Halstead) on the very next terrace of their posh Riviera hotel, along
with her new boy-toy husband Victor (Tobias Burns). When he gets to such
lines as, “Some women must be struck regularly, like gongs,” we think
he means it. Dykstra’s tone frequently pays off in lines that look like
nothing on the page, like complaining about a band’s limited repertory
when it has played the same song over and over.
Dykstra’s presence as Elyot does not mean that this season-opening Private Lives is
some kind of old-home week, or that every character has been stretched
into new corners. In casting the other three leads Perry and the Kitchen
have searched the world. As Amanda, Carol Halstead brings extensive New
York City and national credits, with everything from Shakespeare to
Feydeau. Facing Dysktra’s Elyot, Halstead’s Amanda bursts with bluster
and bravado. Their physical Punch-and-Judy routine in the second act is
funnier because we can see that she could wallop him. As for how an
older woman could hold the passionate affections of a younger man, we
can tell that Halstead’s Amanda comes with healthy appetites for more
exciting fare than cucumber sandwiches. Yes, she’s a cougar before the
term was invented.
Demands were equally high for the less-rewarding roles of Sybil
(Emily Renee Bennett) and Victor, the younger second spouses of Elyot
and Amanda, soon to be discarded. Bennett has been working steadily
internationally since she graduated from London’s Royal Academy of
Dramatic Art in 2008, and Tobias Burns (Victor) went to Harvard and
danced with Alvin Ailey. Significant in their casting, apart from their
talents, both Bennett and Burns are noticeably younger and smaller than
Elyot and Amanda. And they are both outstandingly physically attractive.
That’s what second spouses, trophy wives and husbands, are supposed to
In Perry’s handing, both echo their elder spouses in certain ways.
Sybil’s incessant rattling suggests a nutsiness that would have been
magnetized by Elyot’s wilder streak. And Victor’s forthright stridency
should not only be attractive to Amanda but implies a man ready to take
on an independent woman who still craves intimacy.
Perry’s energy and spritz in staging Private Lives implies the
project has been on her mind a long while. Rather than knock off
giggles with every little bauble, she builds a kind of comic surplus for
bigger payoffs, as with Sybil’s hilarious complaint in the second act.
Elsewhere, although the text hardly needs embellishment, there are two innovations not seen in the previous five productions of Private Lives. One
is the greater prominence given music, some of it of Coward’s own
composition, like “Moonlight Becomes You.” Here a piano is brought on
stage, with the keyboard away from our prying eyes.
The second is the amount of time given to the wordless peregrinations
of the hag-like French maid Louise (Camilla Schade), when the reunited
Elyot and Amanda have returned to Paris in the last scene. Oh, those
drooping stockings cannot be found in stores these days. Schade is a
Kitchen regular, having appeared in Harold Pinter’s Old Times (2008).
Perry or someone knew she was a gifted mime who could turn the mere
snooping around the apartment into a scene-stealing laugh riot.
The bigger stage means more work for Kent Goetz’s period set design,
E.D. Intemann’s scene-enhancing lighting, and Lesley Greene’s sound
design, with aural jokes from the Coward repertory. And in a last
directorial wink, Perry tells us she is a director of today. In the
final scene the rejected spouses, Sybil and Victor, are thrown together
in battle royal, going for each other’s jugular. Blackout. Lights on.
And they’re smooching. It’s all an act, my friend.
This production runs through Sunday, Sept. 19. See Times Table for information.