It was a time when the Garden State Parkway had miles to go until completion, and Neil Simon had yet to pen his first play. Way back in 1953 — well before the arrival of professional playhouses to the sleepy bedroom communities of Monmouth County — a fledgling theatrical company by the name of Monmouth Players chose as its first fully staged production Blithe Spirit, a ghostly farce by a then very-much-alive Noël Coward.
Over the years — some 63 of them, in fact — the Middletown-based players have made numerous return trips to Sir Noël’s well, not just for encores of Spirit but for Present Laughter (staged as recently as 2015) and, beginning this Saturday, a fresh look at the vitriolic valentine known as Private Lives.
Originally produced on London’s West End in 1930 (and lavishly re-imagined by Red Bank’s Two River Theater in a 2009 revival), the comedy of a divorced couple who accidentally cross paths while on holiday with their respective new spouses — discovering, to their mutual horror, that they share adjacent hotel rooms — has provided meaty roles for generations of stage actors, including that legendary on-again/off-again power couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Alternating between interludes of rekindled passion and rage-based pummeling, the play’s a comic rollercoaster that also served up some of Coward’s signature songcraft (while originally getting censored by the Brits back in the day).
It’s not hard to fathom why the plucky little troupe of weekend warriors gravitated toward the Coward playbook for their inaugural effort. While the famously multitasking actor-director-producer-playwright-songwriter could certainly write a compelling drama, he had a particular specialty in the kind of urbane, acid-tipped fare that lent a much-needed air of sophistication to a boot-straps operation that — let’s face it — might as well have been based on planet Pluto for all the Broadway-generated light and heat that could have reached it.
Here at the tail end of what’s been branded “A Season of Classics,” the Players wrap up their 2016-’17 slate of offerings in an elegant (and mischievously ticking) package with a Private production that goes up at 8:15 p.m. on the no-fooling date of April 1 — and continues with evening shows on April 8, 21 and 22, as well as 2 p.m. Sunday matinees on April 2, 9 and 23.
All performances are of course at the players’ homestage space inside the Navesink Arts Center (the former Navesink Library at the corner of Monmouth and Sears avenues), with the troupe’s signature spread of homemade desserts to sweeten the deal, as always.
Also on the April calendar in Navesink — and striking a distinctly different tone than the Coward comedy — will be a special Holocaust Remembrance Day program on Monday, April 24. Beginning at 8 p.m., Players producers Paul and Lori Renick will host an anthology of literary selections, poems, memoirs and other spoken-word presentations honoring the victims and the survivors of the Holocaust. Submissions and speakers are still being welcomed for the free event, with required reservations available by calling (732) 291-2911 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org). Take it there as well for tickets to Private Lives ($20, with discounts for seniors, students and veterans) — and keep it tuned to redbankgreen for updates on additional goings-on at NavArts.