Riverside Theatre's production of Noel Coward's relationship-centered play Private Lives is such a captivating romp through France in the 1920s, and there were moments I was so happily lost in the action, that I never wanted to return to contemporary Iowa City.

Private Lives begins with English newlywed couple Elyot and Sibyl Chase spending their first night at a lovely French hotel. Sibyl is a young, over-dramatic woman who worships her much-older husband, yet she persistently annoys him with questions about his ex-wife, Amanda.

Enter newlyweds Amanda and Victor Prynne. They, too, are enjoying their first evening as a married couple, and uptight Victor also asks worldly Amanda about her former spouse, Elyot. Conveniently, both Sibyl and Victor retreat inside to change for dinner, and the destined re-unification of Amanda and Elyot ensues (though with much hesitancy and reminiscing). The two are obviously still in love and eventually decide to run away to Paris at the end of a very short Act One.

In the second act, set inside Amanda's Parisian flat after the couple has fled the honeymoon hotel, we are allowed an intimate look at the Chases' tumultuous relationship and intense passion for each other. One instant, Amanda is cuddling in Elyot's lap, and the next, she's breaking records over his head and stomping violently about. They reminisce about early vacations, and about the happiness they shared. Elyot proclaims his love, Amanda professes hate. She flits about in a gleeful dance; he mocks her until she hits him. This apartment scene is both disturbing and gratifying to audiences, because, on one side, we see a couple intensely immersed in their love. But within a few moments, those same loving people turn into ugly and cruel beings. We aren't sure whether to laugh, cry, or feel anger at this careless couple.

Their bipolar relationship contributes a convincing depth of reality to the play and also serves as the backbone for this humorous, disturbing, and heart-warming production. I felt so strongly connected to Elyot and Amanda, just because I was allowed to look in on their private lives (hence, the title) and see how they interact when they're alone together.

Private Lives is a specific show, because the action focuses on the intimacies of one couple. But Coward's script also speaks to a universal audience, because he explores marriage, destiny, normalcy, and happiness. For example, at one point, Amanda asks her husband if there's such a thing as happiness in life, because no matter how much in love two people are, they can never achieve constant happiness.

The small cast developed their English-accented characters so they didn't fall into stereotypes or over-dramatize, and at the same time, each actor possessed vibrant traits distinct to his or her character. While Tim Budd (Elyot) walked with a sturdy, masculine grace, Mollie Mook (Amanda) usually tromped about in short, quick steps. Budd's snippy humor and nonchalant stance offset Mook's harsh outbursts and spontaneous fits of laughter. Their interaction was so believable that I still have to remind myself they're not really married. Mary Brandt (Sibyl) and Matthew Vire (Victor) also displayed talent in developing unique character traits. Brandt cried in hiccupy outbursts and represented the innocent feminine creature, and Victor portrayed a studious but loving "husband" to Amanda.

Private Lives at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City was the most enjoyable few hours I've spent in a theatre audience in a long time. The actors were so believably real and Coward's script contributed a unique combination of humor, love, desire, anger, and even a bit of stage combat. It's simply not to be missed.

Private Lives at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City runs through October 5. For tickets or more information, visit (http://www.riversidetheatre.org) or call (319)338-7672.

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