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Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Julie Fishell Star in Noël Coward’s Sublime Comedy “Private Lives” for PRC

Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Julie Fishell star as Elyot and Amanda in "Private Lives" (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Julie Fishell star as Elyot and Amanda in “Private Lives” (photo by Jon Gardiner)

PlayMakers Repertory Company mainstays Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Julie Fishell will play Elyot and Amanda in the critically acclaimed regional theater’s gala production of Sir Noël Coward’s sublime 1930 comedy of manners, Private Lives, on Jan. 22-26, Jan. 28-Feb. 2, and Feb. 4-9 in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art. Guest director Sean Daniels will stage the show for UNC’s professional-theater-in-residence.

Daniels, who is a former associate artistic director of the famous Actors Theatre of Louisville, says, “It’s actually been a joy to do this as I studied the play when I was in college, but have only seen it once. So, it’s great to come at it from a fresh perspective -– to not have to navigate all the other versions and try to purposely repeat or avoid choices they have made.”

He adds, “[PlayMakers Rep producing artistic director] Joe Haj and I had been talking for a while about finding a great classic comedic piece for me to direct. I mostly do new plays and, even more specifically, new comedic plays. So, I have long wanted to do one of the great original comedies -– to see who came up with these jokes that we keep stealing. To spend some time with the shoulders that we all stand on when we make new comedies.”

In Facebook parlance, the “Relationship Status” of the characters of Private Lives is “Complicated.” Sean Daniels says, “The short version is that Amanda (Julie Fishnell) and Elyot (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) used to be married, then separated, then married new people, Victor (Tom Coiner) and Sibyl (Kristen Mengelkoch), respectively. Through a terrible amount of luck, both new couples are honeymooning on the same night, in the same town, in the same hotel, in adjoining suites -– and hijinks ensue.

“What I really think [Private Lives] is about is the choice that all of us make at some point -– do we go for the exotic, hot, unstable thing in our life, or do we decide to be ‘grown up’ and go for the solid, sure-fire, calm thing. It could be a career choice, a vacation choice; but I think most of us think about these kind of choices mostly around who we spend our lives with.

“Both Amanda and Elyot run very hot,” says Daniels, “and so when it’s good for them it’s great, and when it’s bad, it’s never been worse. To avoid it being worse, they both find stable, slightly boring new relationships and then have to wonder ‘What am I missing out on? Should I have taken the more exciting path?'”

Kristen Mengelkoch and Tom Coiner play Sibyl and Victor in "Private Lives" (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Kristen Mengelkoch and Tom Coiner play Sibyl and Victor in “Private Lives” (photo by Jon Gardiner)

In addition to director Sean Daniels and PRC producing artistic director Joseph Haj, the PlayMakers Repertory Company creative team for Private Lives includes assistant director Liz Ray, scenic designer Michael Raiford, costume designer Jennifer Caprio , lighting designer Brian Lilienthal, sound designer/engineer Robert Dagit, production manager Michael Rolleri, vocal coach Sara Becker, movement coach Craig Turner, dramaturg Gregory Kable, and stage managers Charles K. Bayang and Sarah Smiley.

“The space at PlayMakers is great for large Shakespearean battles –- 30 feet from seat to seat across the stage -– which works amazingly well for crowd scenes,” claims director Sean Daniels. ” But Private Lives often has just two people being verbally witty with each other -– so not only did we have to sneakily “shrink” the space (with audience members on the ground surrounding the stage, steps leading up and the like), we have to keep the actors moving pretty constantly, so you don’t feel like you’re watching a conversation from 50 feet away. In that space their physical gestures have to match their intellectual ones.

“[The Paul Green theatre] is a great space for comedy though -– in the sense that you really spend your time also watching the audience across from you,” says Daniels. ” It’s a little like doubling down in terms of what the dynamic of the room is -– if you look across and people are reading their program, you may join them -– but if you look across and people are laughing, you’re more likely to laugh as well….

“For this play,” Daniels explains, “we wanted to recreate the world that Coward was writing in -– or you might have heard about him in: the supper clubs of the 1930s. We wanted to create a space that as soon as you enter transports you to a time where big bands, gin martinis, and ‘needing to laugh to escape the daily news’ existed (even if much of that hasn’t changed).”

Daniels says, “We wanted you to see the show in the context of its day, to experience what it was like to see Noël Coward working in his heyday. To see where it all started. So, [the set] is a 1930s supper club, complete with chandelier and full time piano player.”

He adds, “One of the great thrills of doing a show set in the early 1930s is the clothes. So, we made sure we got Jennifer Caprio -– as she is really the best at designing for a world like this. (Jen also designed the costumes for Cabaret and The Making of a King: Henry IV and V at PlayMakers.) So, the costumes are of the era, and go a long way to telling the story of where these people are in their lives.

“Brian Lilienthal is my favorite lighting designer in the country, the way he is able to add to dictate mood and help to clarify comedy is tremendous,” notes Sean Daniels. “You don’t usually think about lights when you think about comedy, but it’s actually one of the more crucial elements -– it’s what allows the entire room to focus and clearly see the moment, and not be distracted. In film or TV, we can control the eye of the viewer, but not in the theater, so having a lighting designer who understands comedy is crucial.”

Daniels adds, “As part of the ‘1930s supper club’ experience, we added what I like to call ‘adventure seats’ right next to the stage, so the audience is just inches away from certain moments. We want to really let the audience immerse themselves into Noël Coward’s world -– the 1930s café society hot spots where fashion, comedy and deliciousness were what the evening was about.

“Any good comedy is already ‘transportive’ in terms of letting you forget your daily life and get lost in the story,” claims PlayMakers Rep guest director Sean Daniels, “but this takes it to the next level — being able to be in the story without having to actually participate in it. It allows audience members to be up close, virtually rubbing shoulders with the beautiful people -– as Noël Coward would have wanted -– or as I like to say, ‘It’s a chance to enjoy all the 1930s fun without the pesky Depression.'”

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents PRIVATE LIVES at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 22-24 Previews, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 25 Opening Night, 2 p.m. Jan. 26, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28-31, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 1, 2 p.m. Feb. 19 and 20, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4-7, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8, and 2 p.m. Feb. 9 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15-$45 ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), except $55 on Opening Night (Jan. 25th) and $15-per-ticket (general admission) Tuesday Community Night performances. There are also discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel.

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY,, or

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-843-2311,, or




BLOG: PlayMakers Page to Stage:



NOTE 1: PlayMakers patrons who by Section A show tickets may request a “Café Society” upgrade for an additional $20. The upgrade includes floor seating around the stage, plus mocktails designed by The Crunkleton of Chapel Hill and appetizers and coffee from The Weathervane at Southern Season, both served 1930s style.

NOTE 2: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.

NOTE 3: There will be a gala reception after the $55-per-person 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25th.

NOTE 4: There will be an All-Access Performances at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 28th.

NOTE 5: There will be FREE post-show discussions with members of the creative team after the Wednesday, Jan. 29th, and Wednesday, Feb. 2nd, performances.

NOTE 6: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1st. (for more information, click

NOTE 7: The Lucy Daniels Foundation and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor FREE post-show “Mindplay” discussions after the 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8th, and the 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9th performances.


Private Lives (1930 comedy) () and (Wikipedia).

Study Guide: (Utah Shakespeare Festival).

Sir Noël Coward (English playwright and composer, 1899-1973): (Noël Coward Society) and (Wikipedia).

Sean Daniels (director): (PlayMakers Repertory Company bio).


Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)

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Categorised in: Lead Story, Theatre, Theatre Feature