Noel Coward and Arthur Miller light up our lifes with Private Lives and A View From the Bridge!

Arthur Miller & Noel Coward, two brilliant American playwrights, have provided the articulate linguistics and emotional power behind two superb shows in one weekend, what more could one wish for? Heart stopping drama and sophisticated brilliant wordplay are certainly in store for you if you can work both shows into your plans in the near future. The Off Broadway West Theatre Company in San Francisco is presenting Arthur Miller’s tragic drama, “A View From The Bridge” and in the same time frame, the California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda is presenting one of Noel Coward’s most highly revered comedies, “Private Lives”.

Born on December 16th, 1899, he was named Noel, because of his birth’s propinquity to Christmas. He was acting on stage (according to various reports) between ages 6 and 11, purportedly wrote his first drama by age 10, and by the mid 1920’s he was quickly becoming the epitome of British panache and dash, revered as the spirit of the “Kool Brits”. Noel Coward virtually invented the concept of suave “Englishness” for the 20th century. In the process of writing over 140 plays, he became an accomplished stage actor, dramatist, composer, lyricist and an accomplished and uncompromising wit! The pluperfect polymath, he rose to become the center piece of British culture and sophistication, as well as a polished star of both British stage and cinema. His verve, dash, sparkling wit and outrageous exaggeration created an image of the 1920’s intellectual art deco man. His popularity and celebrity reached a climax in the 1930’s with the opening of his comic play, “Private Lives”. I was indeed fortunate to be able to attend the California Shakespeare Theatre amphitheatre production of this comedy this past weekend.

I have seen this play many times over the years by several different highly qualified professional level theatres and I have to exclaim that this has to be one of the most enjoyable ever. Coward is noted for his Noelism’s, clever witty statements that articulate and exemplify the musings of people living in a world of moneyed high society.

Some of the many oft repeated commentaries penned by Mr. Coward are repeated here as follows: "Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.", and “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. Some more of his often repeated words of wisdom are "Comedies of manners swiftly become obsolete when there are no longer any manners" and "Wit is like caviar - it should be served in small portions and not spread about like marmalade." I truly relish everything Coward. He was revered and accepted as one of the most outrageous homosexuals of his time (even though homosexuality was illegal in Britain at the time). He once encountered Edna Ferber, who was wearing a tailored suit. "Madam, you look almost like a man," said Coward. "So do you," replied Ferber.

“Private Lives” is a delightful tale of unbridled love, lust, passion, ill mannered violence between Elyot and Amanda , a couple who were once married for three years, then divorced and now separated for five years. Once again they chance to see each other (unbeknownst to each other) on adjoining balconies in a French beachside hotel. The problem however, lies in the fact that on that same evening, they are about to celebrate their new honeymoons, each with another mate. Elyot Chase (Stephen Barker Turner) and Sibyl Chase (Sarah Nealis) have just checked into a Deauville Normandy hotel. Unbeknownst to them, Victory Prynne (Jud Williford) and Amanda Prynne (Diana Lamar), likewise, have just checked into that same hotel. Much to their mutual dismay, they discover that they share adjoining rooms and verandas with their ex-spouses.
Not wanting to alert their newlywed partners to what promises to be a very uncomfortable encounter, they (Elyot and Amanda) make up ridiculous excuses to their respective new spouses, demanding that they need to check out of the hotel immediately and escape to another place, another town, another location, such as Paris, to spend their honeymoon. The recalcitrant respective partners find the urge to flee to another honeymoon site as absurd, especially in that they have spent hours on the road, they are tired and see no intelligent need to repack their luggage (which they had just finished unpacking) and head off for another honeymoon location. Consequently, fights ensue, their respective spouses head off to the bar or other lounges in the hotel to have a drink and to calm down.

While their newly married partners are sulking elsewhere, Elyot and Amanda return to the balcony, acknowledging that they have discovered each other. A trivial discussion ensues where each lies to the other that they are very happy again as newlyweds and looking forward to life with their new partners (while in fact, they have been having serious doubts about their new marriages). But, after sharing cocktails, old memories, and recriminations as to why they ever separated and divorced each other, when they were “so horribly over-in-love “with each other, Elyot and Amanda again passionately embrace each other. “They acknowledge that they were “utter imbeciles to have separated”,. “We were not sane” cries Elyot! “We never were,” chimes in Amanda! The fires of passion now rekindled, Elyot and Amanda pack their bags and cowardly escape their new spouses and disappear into the night with each other.

The remainder of the comedy embraces their wild and amorous adventures in a hideaway in Paris, their “new maturity”, their new commitment to call a “time-out” when arguments ensue in the future and their re-encounter with the former mates, Victor and Sibyl, who finally catch up with them.

Director Mark Rucker has again delivered a superlative cast and spot-on direction to bring this outrageous comedy to full enjoyment. The cast are absolutely delightful, including Liam Vincent who plays Louis, Amanda’s house servant in Paris. The set designed by Annie Smart is “smart and efficient”, perfect for the play’s execution. Costumes by Katherine Roth are marvelous, beautiful in detail, perfect in character and fit the time period well.

Coward has the audience in the palm of his articulate and witty hand from beginning to end. This play is a sheer delight whether you have seen it before or not. This rapidly moving, cleverly written comedy of manners and matrimonial madness is bound to lighten your spirits and bring a smile to your lips for days! We encountered a light rain for approximately the first 20 minutes of the show, but a beautiful rainbow cast its golden graces on the scene and the remainder of the show was truly a wonderfully whimsical treasure!

“Private Lives” plays Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a matinee on Saturdays, August 1st, at 2 p.m., and a matinee on Sundays at 4 p.m., now through August 2nd. The California Shakespeare Theater is located in the Brun’s Amphitheater at 100 Gateway Blvd. in Orinda, located by exiting the freeway westbound at the last exit on the east side of the Caldecott Tunnel. Tickets start at $20 and generally range between $35 and $63 each (except for previews). Call (510) 548-9666 or visit their website at or you can email the for more information. Be sure and dress in layers as it can get downright cold when the fog comes over the Oakland hills and drop down into the amphitheatre area. You may want to come early and enjoy a picnic in the wonderful park setting that surrounds the theatre as he grounds open two hours before the show. There is a food booth adjacent to the theatre seating area where you can purchase food and drinks prior to the show as well. There is a lot of very nice art sculptures on the grounds to investigate as well.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the time honored Arthur Miller waterfront drama, “A View From the Bridge”, unfolds its ethnic and social tapestry as a story of love, honor and betrayal plays out its explosively tragic tale in Brooklyn New York.

The Off Broadway West Theatre came to fruition in San Francisco three years ago and in that short period has proven itself a major player in the professional theatrical field on the West Coast. In that short period, consisting of only two seasons, the company has been nominated for awards in 16 categories and has won four major awards by the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Eddy Carbone, an Italian, American longshoreman, lives with his wife Beatrice (Sandy Rouge) and orphaned niece Catherine (Natasha Chacon). Eddy has taken on the responsibility of raising his sister’s daughter when her mother dies. It becomes apparent in a short time, that Eddie is having marital problems with his wife, and that his protective and paternal feelings for his niece has been developing into something more, as the young and very attractive woman has matured, now 18 years of age. Eddie is pretty much typical of the tough, hardworking head of an Italian family at this time in America. He expects that he will have final word in all family decisions and as the play opens, that theory is being put to a test. His niece has been offered a job as a stenographer with a major plumbing firm (at the recommendation of her high school principal), even though she still has a year before she graduates from school. Eddie is not happy with the idea of her going off to work, perhaps more upset with what he envisions are the potential problems of a very attractive young lady having to take the subway to work every day and that she will be encountering other young men, not of her neighborhood and outside his watchful eye.

As is typical of the times, Eddie (Richard Harder) finds out that relatives of his wife are being smuggled into the country in such a way as to avoid immigration laws. He also knows that he will be expected to put them up in his home for a time while they “submarine” into the culture and work force, thereby allowing them to earn money to send home to their impoverished Italian families, in a not so prosperous Sicily.

When the two relatives arrive, one is a middle-aged adult by the name of Marko (Glen Caspillo) who has a wife and children at home. The other, his younger brother, is a very handsome young adult by the name of Rodolpho (Vlad Sayenko), who has no immediate and demanding family ties at home, a young man who is quite different than Eddie was expecting. Almost immediately, Eddie is very uncomfortable with this outgoing, upbeat, handsome young man who catches the eye of his niece. He feels very uncomfortable with the inevitable youthful energy of Rodolpho and Catherine gravitating and inching romantically toward each other.

As part of their smuggling contracts, the two illegal immigrants are provided with work for a share of their wages and they are kept busy day in and day out. Eddie discovers that the young Rodolpho is not your typical immigrant; he is a bright, intelligent, light-hearted chap with a gift of gab, humor and good voice. In addition, he has an artistic side, even likes to experiment with making clothing for women. This worries Eddie even more; he doesn’t understand this type of personality, something other than a basic meat and potatoes laborer.

He tries everything he can think of to dissuade the couple from becoming enamored. He threatens, he cajoles, he even sees a trusted lawyer who he thinks can tell him legally how he can keep them apart. The attorney, Antonio Alfieri (Randy Hurst), tells Eddie that outside of reporting the cousin to the immigration officials (which no god-fearing, tradition-respecting Italian would ever do), there is nothing legally that can be done. Eddie descends deeper and deeper into despondency as the couple sees more and more of each other. He takes his anger out on his wife and visiting relatives, going so far as to confront the guests physically.

When Catherine and Rodolpho announce that they want to marry, Eddie can no longer stand the frustration and a dark cataclysmic event takes place. You will have to see the play to learn how the story climaxes, but I guarantee, it will be a thrilling ride, from beginning to end.

Director Peter Tripp has gathered a superb cast who bring exquisite acting and energy to their characterizations. This director has a vision and a mission and he brings them to full coalition with a resulting stellar production. Richard Harder is simply brilliant! Every fiber of his soul becomes Eddie Carbone, right down to his dialect and body language. He is bound to be on the short list at award ceremony time next year for this outstanding performance! While everybody in the cast contributes greatly, Glen Caspillo, who plays the older illegal immigrant, very nearly steals the thunder with his gut wrenching, heart-pounding portrayal as the betrayed family member. Sandy Rouge (as Beatrice) is superb, the loving wife who tries again and again to find a way to mediate the anger away. Catherine (Natasha Chacon) and Rodolpho (Vlad Sayenko) are equally touching as the young couple, in love, determined and yet showing restrained intentions and respect. Other support members of the cast, Michael Perry and Steven Spohn, deliver their characterizations in superlative fashion.

“A View From the Bridge” is without reservation, superb small, intimate theatre, well worth the trip to San Francisco and the very reasonable price of admission of $30 a ticket. Call (510) 835-4205 or visit their website at for more information. The show runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., now through August 22nd. The Phoenix Theatre is located at 414 Mason Street (between Geary and Post) and is only about a five block walk from the Powell Street BART station.