Private Plays, Public Access

Doubling as set designer, playwright Tommaney creates an ingeniously sparse set of pop-down Murphy army cots and foldaway tent curtains. If he were to apply the same economy to his script, The Private Agenda will have a chance of fulfilling its promise.

On the face of it, the prospect of an all-male gay version of Noël Coward's 1930 comedy Private Lives would seem to herald the arrival of a giant turkey a full month before Thanksgiving. Yet as the inaugural effort of the Ramsay-Hutchison Players (a fundraising arm and therapeutic program of the People with AIDS Coalition of Dade County), this wacky Private Lives strips off the stylized black-and-white, Art Deco shroud that smothers so many Coward revivals. Its novel staging portraying the play's two married couples as gay men (with one in drag) astonished me into hoots of laughter at jokes I know by heart.

Enjoying the first afternoon of their honeymoon on their Parisian hotel room's balcony, Elyot (Vincent J. Scotto) tries to set a romantic mood with martinis, even though his demure wife Sybil (Christian J. Carrano) continues to bring up her new husband's previous marriage to Amanda. In this drag-queen persona, Sybil changes from Coward's girlish twit into a man who has made a lifestyle choice: "Just because I'm feminine," Sybil tells Elyot, "it doesn't mean that I'm crafty and calculating. I hate these half-masculine queens who go banging about."

Meanwhile the honeymooners on the adjacent balcony emerge and reveal themselves to be Elyot's ex Mandy (John Gamble) and his new spouse Victor (Ron Jakubisin). Wearing only a towel around his waist, Mandy tries to distract Victor from questioning him about his first marriage. "The woman -- in italics," Mandy decrees, "should always retain a certain amount of alluring feminine mystery for the man -- also in italics."

Before long Mandy and Elyot have spied each other and run off to Mandy's apartment to rekindle their romance, leaving their new mates to trail after them. At ease in their love nest, Mandy and Elyot are soon pummeling each other in their old rough-and-tumble sex games. When Victor and Sybil show up late one morning in Mandy's living room, the urbane banter the four engage in over coffee and pastries is less reminiscent of 1930s sophistication than it is a modern depiction of the phony civilities found at a gay brunch from Hell.

Yet director Hal Brooks forgoes any outrageous gay shtick to play the comedy -- forgive the expression -- straight. Although some aspects of the plot, such as those dealing with England's divorce laws, don't translate into this alternative take on Private Lives, others click in new ways. For example, despite all our advances toward sexual equality, Elyot and Mandy's slapstick fistfights are simply funnier than the sight of a man hitting a woman. And Coward's glittering dialogue regains its flash in Elyot's theory that the Vatican would be pleased by his reunion with Mandy: "Catholics don't recognize divorce," he tells her. "We're married as much as we ever were.... It's nice to think they'd sort of back us up."

But a great script and inspired direction go only so far, and the entire cast was groping for lines and settling into their characters on opening night. As the production's sole career actor, Scotto assuredly drives the action but overlooks his character's self-absorption. Regarding the others: Gamble conveys Mandy's flirtatious streak yet misses his self-assured unconventionality; Jakubisin nails Victor's bewilderment but not his pomposity; and Carreno carries off Sybil's dullness while missing her cunning. Better realized are Patricka Hegstrom's stylish period sets and costumes.

In his song "I Went to a Marvelous Party," Coward describes going to a bash at which "we all had to do what the people we knew might be doing 100 years hence." I doubt Coward ever imagined a gay version of his Private Lives 67 or even 167 years into the future. Still, despite my reservations about the performances, I have to borrow a line from the same song to admit, "I couldn't have liked it more."

The Private Agenda. Written by Jim Tommaney; directed by Philip Nolan; with Chris Vicchiollo, Michael W. Brooks, Jr., and Isabela Mendes. Through November 9. For more information call 531-6083.

Private Lives. Written by Noël Coward; directed by Hal Brooks; with Vincent J. Scotto and John Gamble. Through November 9. For more information call 573- 9717.

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