Private Lives: Theater Review
After 25 years away from Broadway, Kim Cattrall is back playing opposite Paul Gross in the evergreen 1930 comedy by Noel Coward.
NEW YORK – There’s talk of chemistry in Private Lives, and no element is more essential to the success of Noël Coward’s sparkling 1930 comedy than the chemistry between Amanda and Elyot, who fall awkwardly in love again five years after their divorce while honeymooning with their respective new spouses. Even before they share a minute of stage time in the roles in Richard Eyre’s crisp production, Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross make it clear this reckless couple is fated to continue making love and war, whether they like it or not.
The draw here, of course, is Cattrall. A regular on British stages in recent years (this production originated in March 2010 in London’s West End and more recently played Toronto), Cattrall has been absent from Broadway for almost 25 years. She looks sensational, a leggy blond panther right out of a 1930s screen comedy in her Marcel Wave and soigné glamour-wear. But what’s even more gratifying is how gracefully she shakes off the Samantha persona that became her trademark after a 12-year association with Sex and the City.
All four leads in that cable series-turned-cultural phenomenon became grotesque caricatures in the two features that flogged every last ounce of charm from the franchise. Dropping the drag-queeny delivery of the man-hungry gargoyle Samantha, Cattrall reaffirms her considerable talent. Her Amanda has emotional nuance, vulnerability and odd, unexpectedly humanizing glimmers of a common touch beneath the cultivated veneer of exquisite boredom and petulance. In the great Carole Lombard tradition, she also manages to combine poise with blithely inelegant physical comedy.
Shaping his clipped tones, deadpan drollery and chiseled, matinee-idol looks into the Cary Grant mold, Canadian actor Gross is every bit Cattrall’s equal. (He replaces Matthew Macfadyen, who played the role in London.) Best known for the cable series Slings and Arrows, a culty comedy about a bunch of theatah luvvies in a classical repertory company, Gross wears his tuxedo and silk lounging pajamas with authority. Proudly superficial, his Elyot clings to frivolity even when inconvenient drama and personal responsibility rear their ugly heads.
Chief vehicles for those intrusions are Sybil (Anna Madeley) and Victor (Simon Paisley Day), Elyot and Amanda’s mismatched new spouses. First encountered on neighboring terraces of a seaside hotel in Deauville, they follow their capricious partners to Amanda’s Paris apartment, determined to take the fizz out of the former married couple’s champagne.
Coward applies a symmetry that might be merely schematic with a less clever writer. His genius is apparent in the perfect balance between Elyot and Amanda on one hand, and Sybil and Victor on the other. If the divorced protagonists are irresistible reprobates, acknowledging regrettable character flaws even as they wreak emotional havoc, their wronged new spouses are a priggish pair clearly meant for each other. While Elyot and Amanda are creatures of chance, gambling on life and love, Sybil and Victor are starchy pragmatists who would only be miserable had the new marriages endured.
Madeley and Day perform their hapless foil duties admirably and with an agreeable light touch. Sybil is a chirpy, old-fashioned girl, and Victor a crusty windbag, though both stop short of being tiresome.
If the play’s banter-bicker-and-repeat setting becomes a tad repetitive as we wait for the inevitable all-out brawl, Amanda and Elyot at least remain scintillating company. Their duet at the piano on Coward’s “Someday I’ll Find You” is lovely.
A slackening of the pace as the action progresses might have less to do with Eyre’s direction than with the encumbrance of Rob Howell’s design. The louvered wall and wrought-iron balcony of Act I evoke a swanky French resort hotel. But Amanda’s apartment in the second and third acts is a cavernous folly. It perhaps makes sense that this self-styled sophisticate would have allowed architects and décor queens to run riot at the expense of taste or practicality, and it does yield one great visual gag with a ludicrous three-tiered aquarium. However, the room is an eyesore that’s not especially conducive to the accelerating chaos.
Still, the occupants are a good match, and that’s what matters. Compared to some illustrious past interpreters of the roles, such as Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman in the 2002 Broadway revival, they may not dig deep into the agonies of a couple whose like-mindedness fuels both bliss and battle. But you never question that Cattrall and Gross belong together.
Venue: Music Box, New York (runs through Feb. 5)
Cast: Kim Cattrall, Paul Gross, Simon Paisley Day, Anna Madeley, Caroline Lena Olsson
Director: Richard Eyre
Playwright: Noël Coward
Set/costume designer: Rob Howell
Lighting designer: David Howe
Sound designers: Chris Cronin, Jason Barnes
Fight director: Alison de Burgh
Movement director: Scarlett Mackmin
Music: Matthew Scott
Presented by Duncan C. Weldon & Paul Elliott, Theatre Royal Bath, Terri & Timothy Childs, Sonia Friedman Productions, Bill Ballard, David Mirvish