Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncanin Private Lives(Photo: Alastair Muir)
Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan
in Private Lives
(Photo: Alastair Muir)
Just as clothes can make the man, so, too, can actors make the play. Noël Coward's Private Lives is usually treated like a sort of theatrical tennis match, a game in which stars may swat clever lines back and forth. Now, for the first time in our memory, two great actors (who also happen to be stars) have revealed the play to be a poignant comedy of desperation: Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, under the astute direction of Howard Davies, haven't so much reimagined Private Lives as they have rediscovered it. In so doing, they have found the underlying art in Coward's delicious artifice.

Elyot (Rickman) and Amanda (Duncan) have been divorced for five years, and their tempestuous marriage is much remarked upon by their respective new spouses. It seems that Elyot and his bride, Sibyl (Emma Fielding), have arrived at their honeymoon hotel on the coast of France only to book a room right next to Amanda and Victor (Adam Godley), who have also just wed. The terraces of the two rooms are adjoining, yet the couples keep missing each other by a farcical hairsbreadth until Elyot and Amanda are finally brought face to face by destiny (and by Coward's delightful plotting).

The story holds no surprises, insofar as we know from the start that these two people belong together. Happily, they know it, too. And so does Coward. Rather than trying to keep this couple apart for the bulk of the play in the manner of 999 out of 1,000 romantic comedies, the playwright throws them together again rather quickly in order to find out if they'll stick. In the process, Rickman and Duncan do something with these roles that few other actors have managed: They turn their characters into real people. They're still uproariously funny, tossing off witty, sharply delivered lines, but now the laughter has an ache.

At the center of the play's transformation is Rickman's portrayal of Elyot as a man of brooding sadness. When, on that terrace in the moonlight, he painfully admits that he still loves Amanda, his words comes from a dark and lonely place. It's abundantly clear that he's sending out a flare, an S.O.S., hoping that she'll save him. This is not the light and frothy Noël Coward of champagne bubbles; this is the Noël Coward who knows that champagne only has value when shared with someone you love. Amanda is in the same bubble with Elyot, and the couple will either float together or burst apart. The pleasure of the play deepens as we invest ourselves in their love rather than sitting back and waiting for the next zinger.

The chemistry between Rickman and Duncan is not only unmistakable, it's predictable: They displayed a similar sort of stage magic when they appeared together on Broadway in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (both received Tony nominations). Here, they are more than ably supported by Fielding and Godley, both of whom establish their own variations on comically conventional attitudes. Tim Hatley's sumptuous sets, Peter Mumford's emotionally colored lighting, and Jenny Beavan's elegant costumes gird the production. Finally, though, it's Howard Davies' subtle but incisive directorial touch that pulls all of these elements together. He has made the choice, for instance, to add Coward's heartrending song "If Love Were All" to this production; it's sung plaintively by Rickman and Duncan in the second act, and it so perfectly captures the subtext of the play that one could weep at the sheer theatrical beauty of the moment.

The cliché that describes the relationship between Elyot and Amanda is that they can't live with each other and they can't live without each other. But Private Lives is so much more than a clever, extended cliché, especially as experienced in the production now on view at the Richard Rodgers Theatre: It's a story about two wonderfully flawed human beings who communicate their feelings in ways both loving and hateful. There's a lot in this play that is not politically correct, as there is in life. Private Lives just happens to be funnier than real life--and far more entertaining. It is surely the season's most compelling revival.