For Liz and Dick, the Show Doesn't Always Go On, but Offstage Their Private Lives Sizzle

updated 07/25/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/25/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton emerge arm in arm from Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theater, where they star in Private Lives. Smiling coyly, the legendary couple push through cheering fans ("Liz, you're beautiful!") and then duck into a waiting limo, which whisks them off into the night. The scene looks like a romantic replay of their tempestuous, made-for-the-tabloids affairs. But like so many gestures to be seen onstage in their shmaltzy revival of Noël Coward's play, the flashy exit is fundamentally hollow—just a carefully contrived TV commercial to boost sagging box office sales.

The stunt seemed hopelessly wrongheaded after the events of recent weeks, during which the only thing lively about Private Lives was the melodrama unfolding offstage. While apprehensive of critical audiences, matrimonial upstaging from her co-star and imminent exile to Philadelphia, Liz fell ill. First Taylor, 51, left the production with acute bronchitis and laryngitis. Burton, 57, took advantage of the pause to slip off to Las Vegas to wed his companion of two years, script girl Sally Hay, 35. The first night he and Taylor returned to Private Lives, Liz began to hyperventilate and delayed the show for 20 minutes. The audience fumed and fidgeted, then tried to see some humor in it. ("What was she doing back there?" somebody asked later. "Having a meal," one wag shot back.) When she missed nine more performances in 13 days, endlessly patient co-producer Zev Bufman decided not to extend the New York run.

In the past, of course, Liz has seemed prone to illness during those times when she most needs publicity. While appearing on Broadway in The Little Foxes two years ago, for instance, she was hospitalized for nine days with a respiratory illness. This time, though, some observers have questioned whether Liz 'n' Dick are washed up professionally—as well as, finally, matrimonially. "Richard Burton was once a very fine actor who made a mess of things. Elizabeth Taylor was a hopeless mess from the beginning, but she was pretty," says a waspish New York drama critic. "Now she's just an unpretty hopeless mess."

The couple's lack of chemistry onstage ("about as combustible as lukewarm tea," complained one critic) has made Private Lives a public embarrassment. The twice-married, twice-sundered duo play a divorced two-some who meet and fall in love again while honeymooning with their new spouses, but the titillating keyhole drama reveals less than meets the eye. Even in the second act, when Burton grabs Liz's punch-bowl breast, "she responds as if under anesthesia," wrote the New York Times.

Their feelings for each other are no more animated offstage. They never leave the theater together. Liz motors off to the two-bedroom apartment with terrace overlooking Central Park that belongs to her absent friend Rock Hudson, while Burton, a heavy smoker and still occasional binger, holes up at Manhattan's Lombardy Hotel with wife Sally. Burton didn't even show up for Liz's "Woman of the Year" Friars Club tribute last May at the Waldorf-Astoria, though she forgave the slight—sort of. "She told me Dick stayed away because he couldn't sit on a dais for two hours without getting drunk," confides one friend. "You know, she thinks he's still in love with her."

She may be making the same mistake about audiences. While angry ticket holders called the theater for refunds over the July 4 holiday, Liz "recuperated" on the yacht Chiquitita with her man of the season, millionaire Mexican lawyer Victor Luna, 55. One afternoon the couple docked at a heavily gay part of Fire Island and went bar-hopping with four friends. At the Cultured Elephant restaurant and bar, Liz sipped two strawberry daiquiris and then moved on to the nearby Blue Whale, where she had two more drinks. Later Liz and Luna dined à deux on five-pound lobsters and bowls of linguine that the Blue Whale delivered to their yacht on a silver platter. Observed John Whyte, owner of both bars, where Liz drew a mob of curious onlookers, "You wouldn't think she'd been sick."

With Private Lives scheduled for a four-city tour, starting in Philadelphia July 24, Liz's health is an issue. Out-of-town advance sales have been lackluster. Lloyd's of London had bravely insured the play for a record $3.25 million, and Bufman says he will file a whopping $400,000 claim for the dark nights on Broadway. Meanwhile, as the New York run drew to a close, the paparazzi trailed Liz to her doctor's office, where she agreed to pictures "so the public will know I'm really sick." Then, leaning on her bodyguard's arm, she swooned, as the cameras clicked away.

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