If you would trudge miles through the mud, were you invited to trudge miles through the mud, to ride horses along with Ronald Reagan and Queen Elizabeth (never mind that you don't ride horses very well and the humans can hardly have said anything terribly interesting to each other), then you are among that probably large (I'd wager ninety-nine-plus-something) percent of the theater-going population that might in time trudge through the elements, blizzard or sultry heat-wave or whatever, and pay an inordinate ticket price, in order to see another interesting couple do a not too interesting thing to an interesting experience.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, twice married and twice divorced to and from each other, endlessly chronicled for their marriages and their divorces as well as for their acting on-stage and off, have rather awkwardly been squeezed into Noel Coward's frothy bonbon, Private Lives. Its opening in Boston was accompanied by klieg lights—Evita didn't get klieg lights; hell, in Boston nobody gets klieg lights—more Cadillac stretch limousines than usually accompany the highest and mightiest of Boston society, and more than enough advance publicity. From Boston, Private Lives journeyed, no doubt in very private airplanes and transport trucks, to New York, there to triumph with the masses irrespective of what impression it makes on the critics—the discerning critics in Boston cordially detested it, while gentler souls amongst our fraternity tried to find something nice to say about the Liz and Dick show. Finally, Private Lives will journey to selected outposts of theatrical consciousness, at which time you may, if you must, trudge through whatever obstacles confront you, and see the thing. And good luck to you.
What will you get for your money and your time? One of the most sublimely inspired of Mr. Coward's creations, one written expressly for himself and Gertrude Lawrence in 1930. She sent him on his merry way upon the waves on the Tenyo Maru, en route to Japan, bidding him construct something for the two of them; and as he lay sleepless in Tokyo, at the Imperial Hotel (where else?), the thing materialized before him and in four days practically wrote itself. So Mr. Coward told us in Present Indicative, his 1937 autobiography. Equally a star vehicle for the male and female lead, and costarring Laurence Olivier and Adrianne Allen, Private Lives instantly became a smash on both sides of the Atlantic, was thrice revived—first in 1948 with Tallulah Bankhead and Donald Cook, again in 1969 with Tammy Grimes and Brian Bedford, and now as the Liz and Dick show—and is forever on stage in amateur productions.
The story is simplicity itself, a suitable edifice to have been assembled in a mad dash at the Imperial Hotel in four nights. Amanda and Elyot, once married to each other, are on their honeymoons five years later with new spouses, in adjacent suites at a posh resort hotel on the Riviera, of course unbeknownst to each other. When they meet, each tries to convince the new mates to leave instantly; her new husband and his new wife consider their new spouses mad. This leaves Amanda and Elyot alone on the terrace, where love is rekindled, and they flee to Amanda's flat in Paris. Shortly the rekindled fires become conflagrations, the old habits of bicker and bedlam reassert themselves, and we have a rip-roaring fight climaxing the second act.
In act three, the jilted husband of Amanda and wife of Elyot, Sybil and Victor, arrive in Paris. A delicious bit of bitchiness masquerading as total decorum enlivens a foursome for breakfast, and the play gaily hops along to its amusing conclusion.
The Liz and Dick show has, as it were, the music but not the tempo. What is meant as froth becomes minestrone as Miss Taylor, ample as her reputation and hideously squeezed into a Theoni V. Aldredge wardrobe that features unbecomingly low-cut trifles and unbearably elaborate sequined horrors, and Mr. Burton, who is meant to bear swords and give the Bard his due, saunter through scenes that should be tiptoed through, as in daisies. The stars are very talented indeed, and in the right vehicles they are wonderful; and the costars, John Cullum and Kathryn Walker, are both splendid in their parts. But the whimsy congeals nevertheless, because the rapid-fire delivery best suited to Noel Coward becomes in the Liz and Dick show an exercise in declaiming and screeching. Miss Taylor, to borrow a perfect phrase of Kevin Kelly's, for some reason lapses into a bit of Bette Davisizing, as in "I'm! in! such! a! rage!" The play moves at three-quarter speed, and the sparkle is thereby dimmed. When in the second act Amanda and Elyot do their imitation of the Ali-Spinks title bout and go for what seems like 14 rounds, easy, the hideous image comes racing to mind: here is an ancient hunter, languidly bouncing after a century-old elephant; he will get her in due course, and he's giving her a head start, but it won't be very exciting, just loud.
There are moments. She says, "Marriage scares me, really." The audience howls—you will howl—and she looks straight ahead for what seems like hours. Richard Burton has a voice to kill for, he looks wonderful, she sends chills up the spine just by appearing, you marvel that she doesn't break the furniture when she sits, and Noel Coward's dialogue, embedded tipsily in a structure of lace, is swell. So save your pennies and go: it's something to tell your grandchildren about.
Contributing Editor David Brudnoy reviews the arts for WNEV-TV (CBS) News and WRKO-AM and is film critic for several Boston-area newspapers. He hosts a nightly talk program on WRKO, writes regularly for the Boston Herald, and syndicates a newspaper column.