Review: Reliving ‘Private Lives,’ This Time Mostly Women’s

Probably the tightest is “Old Beggar Women,” by Avery Deutsch. This one, too, takes place on adjoining balconies, but in a nursing home instead of a Deauville hotel. There, by amazing playwriting coincidence — or perhaps not — Sibyl, in her 70s, encounters Amanda, in her 80s. Deliciously, neither can remember Elyot’s name, though both were married to him; along with men, the male gaze has disappeared from the story. If not very credible, the plot at least is engaging and unexpected, and as a sequel to Coward succeeds more than its contrivances might suggest.

Part of that, again, is Woodard, who handily swaps personalities and styles in five of the eight plays. Here she plays Sibyl to the Amanda of Kathleen Chalfant, likewise dependably precise and piquant. That the evening’s women (who also include Jacobson, Ali Ahn and the terrific Lilli Cooper) are generally more compelling than the men (James, Frankie J. Alvarez, Edmund Donovan and William Jackson Harper) may be the natural result of plays that are less interested in the Elyots of this world than the Sibyls and Amandas. (Two of the festival’s directors, Vivienne Benesch and Mêlisa Annis, are women and the third, Em Weinstein, identifies as nonbinary.)

That dynamic continues in the remaining plays, two of which, without sampling Coward, at least nod to him in passing. Both “Plague Year” by Matthew Park and “In the Attic” by Jessica Moss pick up his battle-of-the-sexes theme, with women winning the battle decisively. In Park’s play, a resourceful woman in plague-time England (Cooper) must save herself, and her baby girl, from both a domineering husband (Donovan) and a thoughtless lover (Alvarez). Moss takes the theme of novel romantic arrangements even further, mashing “Private Lives” with “Rebecca” and “Jane Eyre” (and its stepdaughter, “Wide Sargasso Sea”) into a deliciously silly Pythonesque squib.

The virtues of the remaining two plays are not Cowardy ones. Though “Evermore Unrest,” by Mallory Jane Weiss, unpacks a relationship between a woman (Ahn) and her ex (Alvarez) through fragments of letters, texts and scrawls on foggy mirrors, its main concern is not romantic, but ecological. Likewise, Ben Beckley’s “Outside Time Without Extension” gives us the measure of two lovers (Ahn and Harper) but is more of a formal experiment, allotting one minute of its length to each 10 years of their lives.

And yet perhaps Beckley’s play — the evening’s opener — is more like “Private Lives” than I at first supposed. Its side-by-side Zoom panes do, after all, simulate the effect of adjacent balconies. And when Ahn and Harper later move into a single frame (apparently, they are quarantining together) the shock of intimacy that made Coward so modern is deftly recreated. How long since we’ve seen a stage kiss?

Short New Play Festival 2020: Private Lives
Available on the Red Bull Theater website and YouTube through July 24 at 7 p.m.

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