Saturday's opening performance of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" at California Shakespeare Theatre felt more like it was in Ashland, Ore., than in Orinda, as big drops of rain splattered and plopped on the stage, actors and crowd throughout much of the first act.

Veterans who came prepared for the usual Cal Shakes chilliness, simply hunkered down beneath the hoods on their parkas, while the less-prepared opened their programs, tented them over their heads and let the rain do its percussion on the paper for the first part of what turned out to be a wickedly funny evening.

Coward's stinging wit plays well indoors or out, and the gin-soaked comedy about two couples in "Private Lives" makes marriage seem like jolly, drunken fun until the pillows and fists begin to fly and all that plumy sophistication begins to dissolve like Bromo on a hangover morning.

This is the story of honeymooning newlyweds Sibyl and Elyot Chase (Sarah Nealis and Stephen Barker Turner) and Victor and Amanda Prynne (Jud Williford and Diana LaMar), all of whom have checked into a waterside resort without knowing that Amanda and Elyot — ex-spouses, now married to new partners — are to be next-door neighbors. To make matters worse, they share a patio in common, and without much door-slamming and hidden identity, we find Amanda and Elyot together again, guzzling martinis.

And, as they sip and scintillate, the pair, as we all tend to do now and then, remember only the good parts, like how they are wildly in love with each other. They conveniently forget that they loathe each other and couldn't stay together more than a couple of days even in the midst of a tropical storm of pina coladas and tiny paper umbrellas.

On the other side, the stuffy-as-a-head-cold Victor and youthfully confused Sibyl find themselves more attracted to each other than their current mates. And that is an excellent recipe for a frosty pitcher of comedy.

And as it turns out, that's exactly what it is, as the various participants go at each other hammer and ice tongs with little more ambition than creating a wildly hilarious three acts of theater (with a short intermission between each).

The actors are more than up to the hilarity, all of them adapting the requisite insouciance with a delightful aplomb, and polishing their comedy skills like well-tended Sterling. Director Mark Rucker keeps the pace tight and the action frenetic and leaves plenty of room for the well-tuned comic characters he and his actors have created.

Turner and LaMar have the plum comic roles, courting and sparking then exploding into gloriously hysterical battle as they slowly come to realize their problem is they love each other beyond all reason, but that staying together could be fatal.

The show's mood and place in time, the 1930s, is instantly created by Annie Smart's set and the stunning costumes by Katherine Roth.

Reach Pat Craig at pcraig@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Theater Review
  • WHAT: California Shakespeare Theatre Company presents "Private Lives," by Noel Coward
  • WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 2
  • WHERE: Bruns Amphitheatre, Gateway Drive at Highway 24, Orinda
  • RUNNING TIME: 2 hours, 25 minutes (two intermissions)
  • TICKETS: $37-$63, 510-548-9666. www.calshakes.org