LENOX

n case you’re wondering what a play by 20th century playwright Noel Coward is doing at the house of William Shakespeare, the answer is simple.

Language, says Tony Simotes, artistic director of Shakespeare & Company and director of its production of Coward’s 1930 "intimate comedy," "Private Lives" which opens Saturday night at 7 in Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre after tonight’s final public preview.

"It’s a great play of language," Simotes said during a recent interview in the company’s backstage Green Room -- actors’ lounge -- where he was joined by David Joseph and Dana Harrison, who are playing the lead roles of Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne, a divorced couple who can no more live without each other than they can with each other. And so, when, by chance, they run into each other while honeymooning with their new spouses -- Victor, played by Adam Huff, and Sybil, played by Annie Considine) -- next door to one another in the same Riviera hotel, they blithely decide to ditch their new partners and run off to Paris to pick up where they left off.

"As I was reading the play," Simotes said, "I realized just how rich it is; how reflective it is of a time in which we had luxurious writing that seemed to descend directly from Shakespeare."

The play premiered in London in September 1930 in a production that starred Coward and Gertrude Lawrence as Elyot and Amanda and Laurence Olivier as Amanda’s aggrieved new husband, Victor -- roles the three recreated when "Private Lives" opened in New York in late january 1931. Over the years, it’s been among Coward’s most-produced plays.

Simotes, who has never directed a Coward play, says that directing "Private Lives" has given him an opportunity to examine up close and personal a style of theater that still holds up after 84 years.

"Working on this," Simotes said, "you really appreciate how fresh the play is. It’s not dated at all."

At the same time, Simotes said, "I don’t want to just do a 1930s play. I think it’s important not to forget who we are now. And so, I’m taking a slightly different take on the way Coward is done."

The relationship between Elyot and Amanda is not easy. They banter with tremendous facility and wit. Words have consequences, however. Their verbal skills ignite, erupt in a go-for-broke physical tussle when words no longer are enough.

"What strikes me in working on the play is just how equal they are," said Harrison, who is no stranger to Shakespeare & Company’s stages nor to Joseph, with whom she has often appeared. "They have intellect, fire, passion. They don’t pull their punches with each other."

"Their relationship is tricky," said Joseph. "You see how complicated everything is between them. You can see that Coward chose their words very carefully. Everything you say or do has implications. You can never know for sure what’s going on between these two."

The fact that Harrison and Joseph know each other so well has made working on "Private Lives" smoother than it might have been had they been strangers when they met.

"I feel so supported and safe with Dana," Joseph said. "I can take risks and she’ll go right along with me."

"I feel 100 percent the same way, so safe," Harrison said. "If he really wants to go somewhere I’ll go along and he’ll do the same for me."
"They can also say to each other what they want, if something makes one of them feel uncomfortable," Simotes said.

In rehearsals, Simotes and his cast have found meaning in shaping their characters through candid discussions about relationships, what’s worked in their own private lives, what hasn’t.

This is the last winter show Shakespeare & Company will be doing, Simotes said. They’re going out on a high.

"We’ve had a blast," Simotes said. "Everyone is getting a chance to stretch."

Audiences too.