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Craig Archibald isn't doing a Noël Coward impersonation—the cover art makes this abundantly clear—and yet he manages to convey a marvelous sense of the man while looking absolutely nothing like him. Coward could only dream of draping his silk dressing gown on so lanky a frame. The premise of his script is that we are flies on the wall as Coward awakens at the Plaza Hotel to the scathing reviews in the paper of his autobiography, Present Indicative, in 1937. It's really a marvelous moment to choose as we always imagine (in no small part due to his own legend-manufacturing abilities) that he tossed off his works casually, practically on the back of cocktail napkins, but of course he was much more invested in them than that. It should be noted, however, that the vitriol he aims at critics seems not to dull his stinger a whit. He refers to a show he saw the night before as "an abortion!" and that was the least of it. Archibald's script does a fine job of delivering somewhat familiar lines without the usual stilted buildup; here they actually sound as they may have the first time they were trotted out.

Coward's dismay over the slings and arrows is but a part of the private life displayed in this outing. About a third of the way through the piece the sailor he picked up the night before and forgot about (gin—it's evil) pops out of the bedroom in a state that in this country is considered beyond natural. Jackpot! But back to the play. Ordinarily, when somebody makes his first appearance nekkid it's assumed to be on the basis of a firm waist. Or whatever. Paul Papadakis is, however, a most engaging actor and makes Darren Zornan, the squid on leave, the perfect foil for the Coward character. Zornan is uneducated but not stupid, articulate without being glib, and remarkably comfortable with his being "musical" (one of the more charming euphemisms, children) from time to time. The two don't generate sparks, but they do generate intriguing conversations.

The only quibble I have with Dan Futterman's otherwise fine direction is allowing Archibald to deliver his punch lines with the subtlety of a neon marquee. Isn't the whole pairing of Coward and martinis because they're both so damned dry (if done correctly, that is)? Amy Shock has created a marvelous approximation of the Plaza, a place of fading swank where the gin and aspirin bottles are both sized for grownups. Coward would be horrified to see this incisive little production, and that's probably why you should.

"Private Life," presented by and at the Hudson Guild Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Jan. 25-Feb. 18. $20. (310) 289-2999.

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