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Kentwood Players Celebrates Noël Coward’s 125th Anniversary Year

6 min read

Kentwood Players are celebrating Noël Coward’s 125th anniversary year by presenting the romcom classic, Private Lives, the English playwright’s uniquely humorous comedy of manners now playing through February 10th at the Westchester Playhouse. The production is directed by Richard Perloff and produced by Gail Bernardi and Rhonda Yeager-Hutchinson. The production team includes outstanding set design by Ben Lupejkis, lighting design by Michael Thorpe, impeccable costume design by Daniel Kruger, and property design by Sheldon Cohen.

Private Lives centers around Amanda (Courtney Shaffer) and Elyot (Matt Landig), a divorced couple who, while honeymooning with their new spouses, Sibyl (Alyssa Berkowitz) and Victor (Allen Barstow), discover that they are staying in adjacent rooms at the same hotel. Despite a perpetually stormy and bickering relationship, Amanda and Elyot realize they still have feelings for each other – and it soon becomes clear they cannot live with each other, but also cannot live without each other! 

I talked with Private Lives Producer Gail Bernardi about the loving way that Coward wrote his female characters with a humor that’s relevant today. “We can relate and aspire to them while remaining true to the genre.” She has directed Coward’s plays in the past including Blithe Spirit which introduced audiences with no familiarity of Coward to his “sparkling repartee.” Bernardi has been involved at Kentwood Players, producing and directing theatre in Los Angeles for almost 75 years. Something she said really resonated with me, “There is a comfort in nothing new but the done before…”

Perhaps we can relate to the women in Coward’s plays because of the enormous positive inspiration women were in his life that helped shape him and the way he put into orbit the modern rom com genre. If Shakespeare was the father of the romcom, Noël Coward is its favorite uncle.

Noël Coward published, produced and appeared in more than 70 plays spanning six decades of his life in theatre. He composed hundreds of songs and written works with at least 20 films made from his plays and musicals. Many of his plays like Hay Fever, Blithe Spirit and Private Lives remain a regular part of repertoires of theatres around the world. 

Elyot (Matt Landig) is caught between his ex-wife Amanda (Courtney Shaffer – left) and his new wife Sibyl (Alyssa Berkowitz – right). Photo by Gloria Plunkett

Coward’s writing was often subjected to Bold Blue Ink by Lord Chamberlain, England’s official theatrical censor who criticized him for suggesting the existence of a sex drive in womankind. Bold Blue Ink! Coward understood women.

The English critic St. John Ervine wrote that Coward’s “tea-table chitter-chatter should remain the prerogative of women” unaware perhaps that Noël developed that staccato style of distinctive diction because his mother had a hearing impediment and it helped her to hear what he was saying. Coward’s warm relationships with the women in his life, particularly Gertrude Lawrence allowed him to make fun without putting them down.

Coward wrote Private Lives in four days while in Shanghai recovering from the flu. He sent the script to Gertrude Lawrence in New York and told her to cable him after she read it. Lawrence sent him no fewer than 30 telegrams about the play with the first stating that she had read the play and there was “nothing wrong with it that can’t be fixed.” Coward wired back curtly “that the only thing that was going to be fixed was her performance.” 

The play premiered in 1930 with Coward playing the part of Elyot Chase, Adrianne Allen was his bride Sibyl, Lawrence played Amanda Prynne, with Laurence Olivier as her new husband Victor. Coward wrote his classic song “Someday I’ll Find you” specifically for he and Lawrence to sing in the play.

Actresses Alyssa Berkowitz (Sibyl) and Courtney Shaffer (Amanda) spoke with me about the experience of playing these characters and the fun actors’ challenge of Coward’s dialogue, the accent and syntax which they both pull off beautifully. Director Richard Perloff’s careful attention to detail, themes, the etiquette of the time and their distinct accents made it a rewarding artistic collaborative experience for the actors.

LR: Alyssa Berkowitz and Courtney Shaffer. Photo by Gloria Plunkett 

Private Lives is East-Coast native Alyssa Berkowitz’s first production with Kentwood Players. She has an impressive background in speech-language pathology and music which well prepared her to play Sibyl and to master the challenging dialect! Through the process of prepping for the role she recognized some of the more modern themes and relatable attitudes of the play. Sibyl certainly comes from the upper-class but not with the same level of privilege as Elyot and Amanda. “The age difference causes her to act in a way that she thinks she should, in a world she hasn’t yet learned how to fit into. She is a woman measuring herself up against another woman while ignored by men.” Read more about Alyssa at her website: alyssaberkowitz.com

Courtney Shaffer was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area. She moved to LA in 2018 and Private Lives is her fourth production as a member of Kentwood Players. Amanda is different than any character she’s ever played she told me, “She is a woman who presents herself and makes choices exactly the opposite of choices that I would, which makes her so much fun to play.” From the first read it was important to her to portray Amanda’s humanity in a way that makes her likable and her choices relatable. She points out Amanda’s line: “I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives. It all depends on a combination of circumstances.” Shaffer certainly succeeds in making Amanda relatable and funny, even when she breaks a gramophone record over Elyot’s head in Act II. She masters the volatility and humor in the shocking fight scene while wearing fabulous red suede heels! Be sure to find Courtney at: IMDb.com/CournteyShaffer

Courtney Shaffer and Alyssa Berkowitz with the Red Hat Society at Westchester Playhouse

Private Lives is now playing through Saturday, February 10, 2024. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm at the Westchester Playhouse, located at 8301 Hindry Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90045.

Metro Train riders can now take the K Line to Kentwood, exiting at the Westchester/Veterans station at Florence and Hindry, just a short one block walk from the Westchester Playhouse! And any Metro riders who show their Metro TAP card when purchasing a full price ticket at the box office will receive a $5 discount.

There are two free parking lots available. The small lot next to the Westchester Playhouse is reserved for disabled patrons only. The Hensel Phelps parking lot at 8330 Hindry Avenue (across the street, next to the Metro train tracks) opens an hour before each performance, is locked when a performance begins, and reopens at the end of the show. Look for the theatre’s parking lot greeter to welcome you. Free street parking is available on 83rd Street and in the adjoining neighborhood, but do not park on Hindry between the Playhouse and Metrolink station. Please read all traffic and parking signs carefully.

Reserved seat tickets are $25 with a $4 discount for seniors and students, available online at www.kentwoodplayers.org, by emailing the box office at boxoffice@kentwoodplayers.org or calling (310) 645-5156. All box office emails and messages will be answered in the order received to confirm your ticket order. Group rates for 10 or more at $19 per ticket can be arranged with the box office.

Kentwood Players 74th Anniversary Season includes Private Lives 1/19-2/10; Steel Magnolias 3/15– 4/16; the Tony-Award winning musical Once on this Island 5/10-6/8; Neil Simon’s comedy Fools 7/19-8/10; the suspenseful thriller Misery 9/13-10/5; and Mel Brooks’ musical comedy The Producers 11/15-12/14. Season tickets for all six consecutive 2024 productions are available for $95 via the box office.

For more information about Kentwood Players including their current production, upcoming auditions, and shows, please visit the Kentwood Players website at www.kentwoodplayers.org. You can also find Kentwood Players information on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

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