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Huntington’s 30th Season Closes with Private Lives

Classic Noel Coward comedy

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In a scene from Private Lives, newlyweds Elyot (played by James Waterston) and Sibyl (played by Autumn Hurlbert) have a passionate moment. Photo by Paul Marotta

The last time accomplished Boston actress Paula Plum graced the main stage of the Boston University Theatre was 26 years ago, when she bounded over the audience on a trapeze in Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers. Now Plum (CFA’75) has returned as the French maid Louise in Noel Coward’s classic comedy of manners Private Lives, the final play of the Huntington Theatre Company’s 30th season.

First produced in 1930 with Coward himself playing opposite his friend and frequent collaborator Gertrude Lawrence, Private Lives opens at a hotel in northern France where newlyweds Elyot and Sibyl unexpectedly encounter Elyot’s ex-wife Amanda and her new husband, Victor, occupying the neighboring suite and celebrating their own recent marriage. Coward’s stylish, bitingly funny dialogue keeps the plot aloft, a romp spanning the reunion of Elyot and Amanda, who despite their energetic differences still have strong feelings for each other, their desertion of their spouses, and their ultimate head-to-head showdown in a Paris flat. Coward wrote one of his most popular songs, “Some Day I’ll Find You,” for the play.

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Paula Plum (CFA’75) returns to the BU Theatre in Private Lives. Photo courtesy of Huntington Theatre Company

Famous for his great wit, Coward, who was knighted in 1969 and died in 1973 at age 76, wrote more than 50 plays, among them Fallen Angels, Present Laughter, and Blithe Spirit, as well as the screenplays for such classic films as In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter. A novelist, singer, and composer, he is also known for his songs, including “Mad about the Boy” and “London Pride.”

The Huntington production runs at the BU Theatre through June 24. “I went to school here, so it’s home,” Plum says of the theater. “I know the rabbit warren behind the stage, I studied makeup in those dressing rooms, and learned the preliminaries of stagecraft here.” She was awarded the Boston Theatre Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Award for Sustained Excellence, the Boston theater community’s highest honor, in 2004 and the year before received the College of Fine Arts Distinguished Alumni Award.

Plum played the lead, Amanda, in a Lyric Stage production of Private Lives several years ago, and when she was asked to portray the French-speaking Louise, she says, she was delighted. It afforded a rare chance to work with director Maria Aitken, whose name is synonymous with Coward’s. Not only has Aitken appeared in more West End productions of Coward plays than any other actress (she portrayed Amanda in a 1980 London revival of Private Lives), but she has been involved with Coward’s work for 36 years, and devotes a chapter to the play in her instructional book, Acting in High Comedy. Aitken directed last year’s Huntington production of Educating Rita and will direct the company’s staging of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in November 2012.

The maid Louise is “the ultimate stereotype of the intolerant Frenchwoman,” Plum says. “She may be low class, but she’s above everyone in the room.” The part was trimmed for the Huntington production because American audiences are less likely than London audiences to understand French. “We cut a lot of her, but not her essence,” she adds. Plum speaks some French and practiced her accent listening to French language podcasts.

Paula Plum says a Noel Coward play offers total escape and she loves <em>Private Lives</em> for the “deliciousness of the love-hate relationship between Amanda and Elyot.” In a scene from the play are Jeremy Webb (from left), Plum, Autumn Hurlbert, and James Waterston. Photo by Paul Marotta

Paula Plum says a Noel Coward play offers total escape and she loves Private Lives for the “deliciousness of the love-hate relationship between Amanda and Elyot.” In a scene from the play are Jeremy Webb (from left), Plum, Autumn Hurlbert, and James Waterston. Photo by Paul Marotta

Private Lives “is a pretty perfect play,” says Aitken. It’s “about love and pain and obsession and is very visceral.” And underneath the signature Coward wit, according to Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois, “there’s just always something vibrating emotionally. Maria Aitken is one of the foremost actors of Noel Coward, famous for her roles, so to have her helming the play is a thrill.” The director says the BU Theatre is her favorite American venue.

Aitken “understands the structure of Coward’s wit, and can lead actors to the next big moment,” says Plum, who loves the play for the “deliciousness of the love-hate relationship between Amanda and Elyot,” a couple she describes as “corrupt, reckless humans being caught up in their own obsession with each other.” She says the play is cathartic, observing  that a Noel Coward play offers “total escape.” The characters “are people of means. They don’t have jobs. Their whole occupation is to delight and torment each other.” Plum recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of living in Paris, on a Fox Foundation fellowship.

In addition to Plum, the cast features Bianca Amato as Amanda, James Waterston (audiences will note the resemblance to his father, Law & Order’s Sam Waterston), as Elyot, Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl, and Jeremy Webb as Victor.

Private Lives runs at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through June 24, 2012. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office. Patrons 35 and younger may purchase $25 tickets (ID required) for any production, and there is a $5 discount for seniors. Military personnel can purchase tickets for $15, and student rush tickets are also available for $15. Members of the BU community get $10 off (ID required) and are also eligible for a special subscription rate. Call 617-266-0800 for more information. Follow the Huntington Theatre Company on Twitter at @huntington.

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Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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