Noel Coward's "Private Lives" has weathered seven decades with unusual grace. It has even survived productions with Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins. You're not going to see it more elegantly performed than in the current revival, imported from London, starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, who last appeared on Broadway together 15 years ago in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," then as now directed by Howard Davies. They play Elyot and Amanda, '20s London Smart Setters, divorced for five years, each now honeymooning with a new spouse in a French hotel, where their terraces adjoin. Duncan is perfect for Coward. Her lithe body has a natural elegance. Her features are exquisite, and when she smiles, the radiance in her eyes fills the theater. One of the high points of the first act comes when they make their discovery of a potentially disastrous coincidence. A band is playing "Someday I'll Find You," which is their song. Elyot, not yet having seen Amanda next door, begins humming. She then starts humming. When he gives her a startled look, she beams him that extraordinary smile. The effect is both hilarious and warm. Rickman is not a conventional choice for Elyot. His face has a kind of oafish quality, his voice is gruff, his manner a bit crude, not like the refined types who generally play the part. But the counterpoint of his earthy swagger and her ethereal poise gives the play a modern tone. By contrast, their spouses, played by Emma Fielding and Adam Godley, seem very much period types. For the first act, which has the wit, elegance and polish of a Mozart string quartet, it all blends harmoniously. The second act, when Elyot and Amanda have deserted their new loves and taken refuge in Amanda's flat in Paris, becomes problematic. It is as if Davies instructed his cast to play it seriously, which seems too stark a contrast to the effervescence of what has come before and the rambunctiousness that follows, when everyone is again in great form. The terraces Tim Hatley has designed are unusually opulent. Jenny Beavan's costumes have great period flair. Her first-act gown for Duncan is the essence of chic. Coward was an object of derision for Britain's Angry Young Men in the '50s. Yet many of their plays now seem far more dated. When "Private Lives" is performed this well, its charm feels timeless.
They can't live with one another and they can't live without one another. Sounds familiar? Of course, it's Elyot and Amanda again, the battling lovers of Noel Coward's "Private Lives." These two have probably appeared on Broadway almost as often as Damon Runyon, and they returned last night to the Richard Rodgers Theatre, once more to spread their wayward magic.
But they returned with a fierce edge of difference. This is a surprising, electric "Private Lives," done jungle-style.
This Elyot and Amanda have the heady scent of an entire zoo of predators.
Credit for this extraordinary change of pace must go to the director Howard Davies, who can always see a skull beneath its skin, and two fantastically gifted actors, the dangerously sublime Lindsay Duncan and the sublimely dangerous Alan Rickman.
Coward claims to have written this disarmingly disciplined masterpiece in a few days. Doubtless he did. But a wealth of feeling and experience went into those few days.
Like many great plays - for example Strindberg's class- and sex-obsessed "Miss Julie," - the story is so simple it's scarcely worth repeating.
A once-married couple meet on adjacent hotel balconies on the French Riviera - with a coincidence breathtaking enough to convert a non-believer into acceptance of destiny - on the first night of their respective honeymoons to other people.
After politely tortured small-talk, the seemingly unquenchable embers of their love flame up into hot lust. They grab their still unpacked suitcases and decamp at once to Paris.
All too often, this tale, with its modestly predictable outcome, is presented in the clipped tones and bored superiority of a Coward caricature, who bears a teacup in one hand and a veddy, veddy dry martini in the other. We are neither shaken nor stirred.
Now Davies, Rickman and Duncan have peeled back the facade of upper middle class behavior to lay bare a wild madness, hints of almost heroic evil and a cool, selfish sexuality.
This Amanda and Elyot don't really give a fig for anyone and they don't even bother to use the spare fig leaves to cover it up. And both can recognize an obsession when they see one.
Oh yes, they suffer - like spoiled children denied the one toy they dote on.
Duncan, luxuriously sensual, has the grand and distanced air of a model from a 1930s glossy fashion magazine to whom polo, gambling, dancing and adultery were serious pursuits. And everything is either fun . . . or not fun.
Rickman, feral and unsatiated, glittering eyes searching for his mirror image, is all shifty charm personified and wrapped up with a nonchalant and appealing seediness.
The trickiness with such performances is that they could be too real for the flimsy structure of the play - that the actors might remind us too often of their earlier acclaimed Broadway duet in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses."
But here, Davies' tact and Coward's sheer good humor keep that possibility pretty much at bay, although at times these record-bashing combatants are a little, as Coward puts it, "jagged with sophistication."
Simpler humors are masterfully conveyed by the pair's naive, blustering and miserably unsympathetic dupes, the always superb Emma Fielding as Elyot's Sibyl (never has a Sibyl quibbled better) and an impeccably starched Adam Godley as Amanda's Victor.
Completing the cast is Alex Belcourt's sulky French maid, who manages the best pratfall seen on Broadway since Michael Crawford in "Black Comedy."
Take these provocative joys, add settings by Tim Hatley that playfully echo the play's mood, costumes by Jenny Beavan's that unerringly catch the period, and skillful lighting by Peter Mumford that makes time its essence, and you have a blissful night of wicked enchantment.
The laughter stops, at least for a moment, with the first embrace.
It's been more than five years since Amanda and Elyot have been cheek to cheek, and the occasion is honored with a silence that roars like the ocean. Lest you doubt this is serious stuff, check out the expression on her face, seen over his shoulder. It's a look of rapture, resignation and abject terror. As he will say later, none too happily, ''We're in love all right.''
The play is ''Private Lives,'' and the subject -- although you may have forgotten this -- is sex. Or as Amanda describes it, ''our chemical what d'you call 'ems.'' Since Amanda is played by the ravishing Lindsay Duncan and she is speaking to the equally ravishing Alan Rickman, no further definition is required.
In Howard Davies's scintillating new revival of Noël Coward's best-known work, which opened last night at the Richard Rodgers Theater, the erotic bloom is restored to one of the funniest comedies of the 20th century. Although long dismissed as a stylish arrangement of smart surfaces, the implicit carnality in ''Private Lives'' stirred shivers among the censors of the Lord Chamberlain's office when it was presented for vetting in 1930.
''An immoral play'' was the verdict of one Lord Cromer, who took especial offense at ''the amorous business'' of Act II, which he felt went ''very far'' and required caution in the staging. Mr. Rickman and Ms. Duncan, it should be noted, make you fully appreciate the old boy's alarm. But reviewers, that jaded breed, raised nary an eyebrow when the play first opened in the West End and on Broadway, starring Coward and Gertrude Lawrence.
What critical objections there were centered on the play's perceived superficiality. Coward, wrote Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times, ''has nothing to say, and manages to say it with competent agility for three acts.'' The playwright himself dismissed it as ''the lightest of light comedies.'' And most revivals -- often laugh-milking showcases for aging glamour girls (Tallullah Bankhead, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins) -- seemed to confirm that opinion.
But from the earliest performances of ''Private Lives,'' others sensed a graver, more solid center beneath the froth. No less an admirer than T. E. Lawrence, who as Lawrence of Arabia knew a thing or two about conflicted passions, pronounced it a work with ''bones and muscles.'' Generously add flesh and blood to that description and you have Mr. Davies's recipe for his vibrant interpretation of the play, which has only deepened since I saw it in London several months ago.
The production, rest assured, doesn't scant on the expected cosmopolitan pleasures of ''Private Lives,'' which portrays the combustible reunion of the long-divorced Amanda and Elyot when they run into each other on their respective honeymoons with Victor (Adam Godley) and Sybil (Emma Fielding).
Tim Hatley's exquisitely mannered sets, combining Deco geometry and sybaritic luxury, should instantly dispel any worries that this is one of those dreary deconstructions that drain the joy from a familiar frolic. Ditto Jenny Beavan's costumes, which as worn with disarming ease by Ms. Duncan and Mr. Rickman suggest that black tie and slouchy pajamas are interchangeable as evening wear.
Nor do any of the five ensemble members -- deftly balanced out by Alex Belcourt as a casually contemptuous French maid -- shortchange theatergoers who expect a full ticket's worth of rib tickling. The epigrams crackle or scathe, as called for; the comic pauses are as precise as Greenwich mean time, and when knockabout farce is demanded, the performers deliver it like a team of acrobatic clowns outfitted by Savile Row.
Nonetheless I was entirely sympathetic when at intermission I heard a woman ask her companion, ''Is it all right for me to cry at Noël Coward?'' Because this production finds the pathos in the idea of a couple who both love and despise each other with such finely matched ferocity. (So do the novels of Thomas Hardy, but they're less fun.) Apart they aren't fully alive; together they create the sort of damage that would make them an insurance underwriter's nightmare.
What makes this ''Private Lives'' pulse so convincingly is that you never doubt that Amanda and Elyot are, for better and worse, kindred souls. They are first glimpsed apart on adjacent balconies of a hotel in the South of France with their respective younger new spouses. Elyot has just married Sybil, a sweet, stubborn little matron in the making; Amanda is now partnered with the tweedy, gangly and virile Victor.
Despite some cooing and cuddling, the conversation doesn't flow easily for either set of honeymooners. The sardonic playfulness that is the first language of both Amanda and Elyot might as well be Albanian to Victor and Sibyl.
Nor can the younger newlyweds begin to appreciate Amanda and Elyot's shared conviction that flippancy is a necessity because life is far too serious to be taken seriously. Never mind that when Amanda and Elyot become aware of each other's presence they aren't at all pleased to see each other. The very rhythms of the evening alter.
Here at last are two people on the same wavelength. When Amanda speculates idly, as she had with Victor, on whose yacht that might be in the water, Elyot lazily gives exactly the right answer. As Ms. Duncan and Mr. Rickman present it, however, there's a tension and even a sadness beneath the linguistic game playing. Clever words, like smart clothes, are a counterweight to the urgent demands of the naked self. When Amanda and Elyot bolt from their honeymoons to her Paris apartment, the air is thick with equal parts glee and alarm.
Mr. Rickman and Ms. Duncan convey this stinging self-consciousness beautifully. There are tasty hints of feminine vanity in him and masculine belligerence in her that make them seem all the better matched. When they sing snatches of songs to each other, you sense a shared language beyond language.
Last seen on Broadway as the vicious aristocratic lovers of ''Les Liaisons Dangereuses,'' also directed by Mr. Davies, they exude a natural two-sided familiarity that chafes even as it stimulates. As a consequence the hair-trigger reversals between adulation and irritation of the second act, as Amanda and Elyot make love and war, never seem forced or arbitrary.
In roles first played on Broadway by Laurence Olivier and Jill Esmond (Olivier's wife at the time), Mr. Godley and Ms. Fielding firmly hold their own comic ground. One wishes they were allowed to be a tad sexier, though. As it is, it's only their drolly drawn bourgeois solidity that justifies their appeal to the wayward Amanda and Elyot.
It is said all too frequently that opposites attract. The truly subversive aspect of ''Private Lives'' is its sly insistence that like is drawn to -- and repelled by -- like.
''I think very few people are completely normal, really, deep down in their private lives,'' Amanda says famously. Coward, a gay man in a country where homosexuality was legally punishable, knew all about private realms of shared sensuality.
Mr. Davies, Mr. Rickman and Ms. Duncan translate that sense of a secret self, searching with hope and fear for its other half, into universal terms. Against this shadowy terrain, the glitter of ''Private Lives'' shines all the more bewitchingly.
Revivals have become Broadway's bread and butter in recent years, and it sometimes seems that most have all the flavor the metaphor implies. But Howard Davies' "Private Lives" is something else entirely: a heady, heaping spoonful of pure caviar. Celebrated in London --which is saying a lot, since Noel Coward's comedy seems to reappear in the West End every time they change the guards at Buckingham Palace -- the production glitters even more brightly on Broadway, at the tail end of a particularly grueling season. In its mixture of wit and style, smarts and feeling, it is simply without peer on a New York stage.
The director's approach is by no means revisionist: The play runs its merrily mean course on traditional if splendidly stylish sets by Tim Hatley (the seaside hotel of act one is wonderfully rendered as an art nouveau wedding cake), in Jenny Beavan's elegantly cut period costumes. And it respects the perfect tailoring of Coward's words, too.
But Davies and his chief collaborators, the mutually sublime Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, who give performances as savagely funny as they are emotionally fertile, find provocative new colors in its famously flippant dialogue. Playing with delicate shifts in tempo and tone, they allow surges of vivid feeling to bubble up in between bouts of arch repartee. A comedy that is often rattled off like a bedroom farce becomes a richly rewarding exploration of the confounding nature of love and attraction.
This isn't to say the production gives short shrift to Coward's acidic wit. On the contrary, Rickman and Duncan, reunited on Broadway some 15 years after playing another pair of romantic combatants under Davies' direction in "Les Liaisons Dangereuse," reveal perfectly matched comic styles, as subtle as they are assured.
Watching the emerging acerbity of the characters they're playing, the divorced Amanda and Elyot, both honeymooning with their new spouses at that seaside hotel, is the chief delight of the play's delicious opening act.
Languidly petting his new bride, Emma Fielding's pert and prettily played Sibyl, as he deflects the conversation from his romantic past, Rickman's Elyot is clearly a man whose personality has been temporarily tranquilized. Only the flickering of an occasional eyebrow, or a flamboyant slouch indicating irritation, suggest the potential for theatrics underneath the Elyot's tailored surfaces. And as she coos on cue to the gamely earnest Victor of Adam Godley, Amanda, too, seems to be working to keep up a placid mask of composure.
But when the two are left alone on their respective balconies, it doesn't take long for sparks to start flying. Indeed, as we watch Amanda's face register astonishment, then dismay and finally a warmly pleasurable relish when she first catches sight of Elyot, it's as if a well-oiled machine that has been idling begins to warm up.
Soon enough it's at full throttle. Abandoned by their spouses after mutually desperate attempts to escape, Amanda and Elyot begin lacing into each other with playful abandon, and Duncan and Rickman bring such sly and witty inflections to Coward's cutting dialogue -- the amount of scorn Duncan pours into three words, "Very flat, Norfolk," is impossible to convey -- that it's easy to overlook how clearly the actors also convey the submerged feeling that simmers beneath the brittle words.
With their warring instincts suddenly activated, it's not long before Amanda and Elyot's mutually loving ones break out into the open, too. The brisk clip of the dialogue subsides into a torturously slow give and take; silences fall heavily in between the sarcasms. A sad tenderness springs into Duncan's darkly glittering eyes.
It's in this transition that the sorcery of the production most amazes. Mere minutes after whipping the audience into a frenzy of laughter, Rickman and Duncan reduce us to a kind of painful rapture: The aching truth of the feeling between Amanda and Elyot, their sudden, agonized recognition that the love they still share is the purest expression of their proud individuality, strikes us with a terrible poignancy. The flight to Paris becomes something more than a farcical adventure: It's a matter of life and death.
Successful as it is at presenting the play's glossy comic surfaces -- Duncan's honey-dipped politesse as she serves coffee in the last scene is alone worth the price of admission -- the production more crucially reawakens us to the radical ideas that Coward dressed up in funny banter: Here and elsewhere, the playwright questions the nature of love as it has been codified and celebrated through centuries of Western culture. Is it, as Sibyl and Victor and the rest are led to believe, a state of placid comfort, a happily-ever-after heaven on earth? (Tellingly, Coward chooses to make clear that Amanda and Elyot don't buy the standard religious pieties either.) Or is it simply an electric current between two personalities that can express itself in combat just as naturally as cuddling, flippancy as naturally as fond declarations?
Whatever name it is given, the feeling between Amanda and Elyot is a force so powerful it even manages to set a few fires in the temperate hearts of Sibyl and Victor. But even as these two bring the play to its farcical finale, tearing at each other with a violence that silences their amused spouses, Rickman and Duncan rivet the attention with a mere glance, as Elyot looks imploringly at Amanda and reaches gently for her hand. The moment contains a sad irony to rival the comic one in the foreground: It's only when these two wonderfully articulate creatures aren't saying a word that they can really communicate.