Sure, it stars Samantha Jones and the mountie from Due South, but don't be fooled: the Broadway-bound production of Private Lives currently playing at the Royal Alex has a lot more going for it than stunt-casting.
We admit to some level of trepidation when we went to see the much-hyped, Broadway-bound production of Noël Coward’s classic comedy Private Lives. As you no doubt already know (thanks to a ubiquitous ad campaign), this production features Canadian TV star Paul Gross and Canadian-ish American TV star Kim Cattrall as feuding ex-spouses Elyot and Amanda. Sure, Gross was great on Due South and Slings & Arrows, but his stage record is spotty, and included a somewhat notoriously not-awesome Hamlet at Stratford. As for Cattrall, she’s probably best known for such classic films as Mannequin, Police Academy, and Porky’s (and some cable show about sex or something). Do either of them have the chops to pull off Coward’s darkly scintillating comic masterpiece? The answer is a resounding “Yes!”
If you don’t know the play, it’s about two newlywed couples: deadpan cad Elyot and his bubbly bride, Sybil, and zesty, temperamental Amanda and her strait-laced husband, Victor. In act one, both honeymoon at the same hotel in Deauville, France, and discover their rooms have adjoining balconies. The twist is that Elyot and Amanda used to be married, and their discovery of each other leads to shock and anger, then nostalgia, then an impassioned flight to Amanda’s apartment in Paris, where we spend acts two and three. They fight, make up, and make love in about every conceivable configuration, and if the whole thing sounds rather like that episode of Frasier where Dr. Crane goes to Bora Bora with JoBeth Williams and runs into Lilith, that was probably an intentional homage on the part of the Frasier staff (or maybe not, but whatever).
Clearly, much of the interest in a revival of this show rests on the seductive shoulders of Kim Cattrall. Even SATC‘s strongest detractors have to admit she had solid comic chops as the iconic Samantha Jones, but most of us haven’t seen her do much else. In fact, so eager was the audience to take in Cattrall’s performance that they immediately burst into enthusiastic applause the second an attractive blonde woman entered the stage at the beginning of the show. Things got awkward when they realized it wasn’t Cattrall, but Anna Madeley, this production’s Sybil. But it only made Cattrall’s actual entrance even more show-stopping, particularly since she enters wearing an about-to-fall-off white towel that wouldn’t at all look out of place on sexpot Samantha. That moment seemed crafted to acknowledge Cattrall-the-actor, and the character we associate her with, while easing us gradually into the world of the play and the character of Amanda.
She soon switches into the first of several stunning gowns designed by Rob Howell (who also did the set), leaving all memory of Ms. Jones far behind. She speaks with a throaty sophistication that seems halfway between Miranda Richardson and a sexier Mrs. Banks from Mary Poppins (um, which is a compliment). Her British accent is flawless, although that shouldn’t really be a surprise: despite growing up mostly in Canada, she was actually born in England and attended LAMDA. But perhaps most impressive is her physical comedy. Cattrall is a natural onstage, able to seamlessly transition from sultry poise to goofy, manic slapstick in seconds.
As Elyot, Gross doesn’t disappoint either, particularly in the latter two acts. We found him a little stiff at the beginning of the show, but maybe it’s just that most of Elyot’s more fabulous bits of cruelty, wit, and passion come after the intermission. The chemistry between the two leads is palpable, and watching them do anything to each other, whether sweet or savage, is simply delicious. As the abandoned Sybil and Victor, Anna Madeley and Simon Paisley Day, respectively, also hold their own, but Private Lives belongs to Elyot and Amanda and their all-consuming amour fou.
Rob Howell’s set is magnificent, if a tad distracting. Act one treats us to a solid wall of French window shutters well downstage that act as a backdrop to the action. Acts two and three use the full depth of the space to recreate Amanda’s apartment. Flouting convention, Howell dresses it as a sort of expressionist subterranean aquarium, complete with surreal globular koi tank. It’s strange and beautiful and affords for some fantastic pieces of stage business involving a very high window that must be opened and closed, but there are times that it pulls you from the reality of the story.
And there is a reality underlying Coward’s script. Despite the lightning-fast, screwball punchline-punchline-punchline approach directors often take with Coward, Private Lives is more than an acid bon mots bonbon, and that’s something that does at least poke through in Richard Eyre’s direction. When Elyot and Amanda beat each other, we should gasp. When they seduce each other, we should feel it. This is a play about monstrous emotions, the difficulty (or impossibility!) of maintaining romantic relationships, the cruelty of chance, and the harsh disconnect between fantasy and fact. Eyre’s production—with no small thanks to the phenomenal performances by its two leads—succeeds because it buoys you along with so much laughter you’ll almost think it’s an accident when you leave the theatre having deep thoughts about your own love life.