For its current holiday production, the Lantern Theater Company is presenting Noel Coward’s romantic comedy, Private Lives. Performances continue through Dec. 31.
The production focuses on a glamorous couple with a stormy past relationship. Five years after their divorce, they meet by chance in a hotel when they are on their honeymoons with other people — and discover they still have intense feelings for each other.
“These two characters are so smart, and their repartee is diabolically funny,” said Genevieve Perrier of Northern Liberties.
She has one of the leading roles as Amanda, the ex-wife — and she’s delighted.
“I was really excited about the opportunity to play Amanda,” she said.
Perrier recently studied Noel Coward’s style in a graduate course in Temple University’s theater department, and that heightened her interest.
“We were studying British high comedy and I’d worked on a scene from another Noel Coward play,” she said. “So I was really excited to apply what I’d learned.”
In playing Amanda, Perrier follows a line of illustrious actresses who took on the role in various productions that followed the successful 1930 London premiere. They include Tallulah Bankhead, Elizabeth Taylor and Maggie Smith.
Because it’s a major part with much fast-paced dialogue, Perrier began preparation in the summer, reading and re-reading the script to master her role.
“I did it so I’d be very, very familiar with it by the time of the first rehearsal,” said Perrier. “By now, I’ve read it at least fifty times.”
Her co-star, Ben Dibble, who plays ex-husband Elyot, also was well-prepared. Both of them are Barrymore Award-winning actors who had not worked together before.
“Ben has wonderful positive energy, and he’s willing to try anything,” said Perrier.
And he, in turn, was delighted to work with her.
“We have good chemistry, and the whole play hinges on that,” said Dibble. “We both feel totally comfortable with each other.”
That chemistry is especially important in a play that involves scenes of romance.
“Amanda and Elyot have been in a very passionate relationship and now they’re reunited for the first time in five years,” said Perrier. “There’s the newness of having love re-ignited, and they have an irresistible attraction for each other.”
There’s one romantic scene in Act 2 that involves considerable physical closeness, including kissing and snuggling on a couch. Before Private Lives opened in London, the scene was nearly censored as too risqué.
But besides the love scene, there’s also a tempestuous fight. And these two go at it full force.
“It involves rolling around on the floor, scratching, slapping, punching,” described Perrier. “And they are well-matched.”
But she also emphasizes that this is not a scene of true violence.
“Of course it’s provocative, but the audience is never afraid we’ll hurt each other or that there’s real danger. If we do it right, it’s hilarious,” said Perrier.
To “do it right,” Dibble and Perrier were coached by fight director J. Alex Cordaro.
“He’s an actor himself and he’s wonderful to work with,” she said. “Working with him, you know it’s going to be safe and in line with the intentions of the playwright and the director.”
Since the play requires such a physical performance from both actors, Perrier and Dibble need a lot of stamina. They are onstage more than 80 percent of the time during the two-act play.
“It takes a lot of energy,” said Perrier. “You have to stay mentally focused and on top of the material. We’re both winded and sweating by the time it ends.”
You wouldn’t know it to watch, because onstage they look elegant — in keeping with the upper-crust British characters they play.
Perrier is especially glamorous in a long white gown with spaghetti straps made for her by costume designer Mark Mariani. In another scene, she wears a long period dress designed from one that Katharine Hepburn wore in one of her movies.
ldquo;My costumes are over the top — more so than in any other play I’ve been in,” she said.
This is Perrier’s fourth show at the Lantern.
“I love working here,” she says. “It’s one of Philadelphia’s smaller theaters, and you feel that everyone is working to make sure this is the best show it can possibly be.”
That was certainly true in 2008, when her performance in the Lantern’s Skylight earned her a prestigious Barrymore Award.
The busy actress has had varied roles with other theater companies, including the Arden, Act II Playhouse, Theatre Exile, Pig Iron and Mum Puppettheatre.
Her schedule was especially hectic last season when she was performing in plays while also taking six courses at Temple University’s School of Theater, where she earned her master’s degree in performance in August.
Her life in the theater is still busy, but at home in Northern Liberties, one of her favorite activities is cooking.
And that’s not surprising. She’s the daughter of renowned French chef George Perrier, who founded Le Bec Fin and now has three other restaurants plus a bakery.
As a result, Perrier knows her way around a kitchen, but she often asks her father to teach her his specialties.
Her true appetite, though, has always been for theater.
She was in third grade when she had her first role in a school play, Annie, at Friends Select.
By the time she was in 10th grade, she knew she wanted a career on the stage. Her role in a school production of Anything Goes was a turning point.
“There was a moment when I realized, ‘I really love this!’ That’s when I knew this was what I wanted to do,” she said.
She graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and later moved to Philadelphia and became involved in the theater community.
Her father is a fan who comes to all her performances.
“He’s proud of me, and he knows I love what I do,” she said.
Another fan in her corner is her fiancé, actor Dave Johnson. The two enjoy favorite haunts in Northern Liberties, including Standard Tap at Second and Popular streets.
But now that Private Lives has opened, there’s not much time for leisure. And Perrier doesn’t mind at all.
“Amanda is so much fun to play, and this is one of Noel Coward’s best-known plays,” she said. “Having a great role in a great play is a rare opportunity, and I’m very grateful for it.” ••
Private Lives by Noel Coward continues at the Lantern Theater at 10th and Ludlow streets through Dec. 31. Tickets ($20 to $36) are available at lanterntheater.org or 215-829-0395. Discounts are available for seniors and students.