Kim Cattrall gazes out in character as Amanda on the Playbill for Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” her head cocked back, nose pitched at a high angle, her face softly kissed in a glamorous glow.
It’s been 25 years since the actress’ first and last appearance on Broadway in Michael Frayn’s “Wild Honey,” and since then, Cattrall has shown off far more private areas than her face on “Sex and the City.”
But everything you need to know about Amanda is in that upturned beak, which bespeaks an above-it-all ease and a frisky sophistication. And that is exactly what is missing in this revival that began in London’s West End.
It’s too matter-of-fact and not nearly frothy enough to make this wickedly romantic comedy sparkle. There are bubbles, mind you, but they’re from a goofy-looking aquarium that’s in Amanda’s Paris apartment. And even that springs a leak during the show.
Coward’s 1930 comedy boasts his signature zingers and is simple in its setup: Amanda and Elyot (Paul Gross) reunite five years after divorcing. They’re both on their honeymoons with their new spouses, but realize they’re still drawn to each other. However, there’s a fine line between love and hate for this volatile duo.
Each decade brings “Lives” to Broadway: Tammy Grimes and Brian Bedford in 1969, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1983 and, most recently, Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman in 2002.
And now Cattrall, who sports a pushup voice pitched somewhere between girlish and Glynis Johns. What made her Samantha on “SATC” so effective was the down-and-dirty humanity she brought effortlessly to the part. Here, Amanda’s innate leisure-class privilege eludes her.
Cattrall has little moments, including when she silently mouths Elyot’s new wife’s name in disgust and when she launches herself like a missile onto a bed.
Gross, a Canadian actor known for “Due South,” makes a dashing Elyot, but too often equates scowling and shouting with humor. He and Cattrall look good together, but that’s not the same thing as hot chemistry. Simon Paisley Day and Anna Madeley capably play their new lovers.
Director Richard Eyre (“Mary Poppins,” “Arcadia”) has guided stylish Broadway productions, but his work here isn’t his best. Rob Howell’s hotel set for Act I lacks imagination and Amanda’s French flat in Act II and III, with its sponged walls and piano, evoke a “Design Star” misfire.
Those critical of star-casting on Broadway should catch Kim Cattrall — the single best thing in the humdrum new revival of Noël Coward’s “Private Lives” that opened last night.
Best known as the hedonistic Samantha Jones in “Sex and the City,” she looks perfectly at home in Coward’s sparkling, cynical world, where emotions are funneled through witty exchanges and refined posture. Come to think of it, this may not be such a departure from the hit TV series.
In any case, Cattrall is a vibrant presence as Amanda, one-half of a couple that’s destined to be together. Or perhaps they’re doomed to be together: Amanda and Elyot (Paul Gross, dashing but one-note) are irresistibly drawn to each other, but it’s never long before affection morphs into bickering.
Indeed, “Private Lives” is usually described as a comedy of manners, but its take on love and married life is pretty depressing: People love, then they fight, then they love again, then they fight again. It’s like Beckett with tuxes and evening gowns.
When we first meet them, Amanda and Elyot are honeymooning in a luxurious French hotel — separately. Divorced for five years (she sued “for cruelty, and flagrant infidelity”) they have fresh spouses, but each casts a long shadow over the other’s new union.
Unfortunately, Richard Eyre’s production stacks the deck, making it overly clear the new couples don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell.
Elyot looks bored by his young new wife, Sybil. Played by Anna Madeley with girlish pep, she pales next to Amanda, the embodiment of sophisticated womanhood.
But then Amanda’s new husband, the mustachioed, balding Victor (Simon Paisley Day), has the stiff manners of a midrank officer. Compare and contrast with Gross’ Elyot, who boasts matinee-idol looks and cocky confidence.
The first act, in which Amanda and Elyot meet again and resume their relationship, moves swiftly. The two are evenly matched, and trade barbs with glee. But after intermission, the show slowly sinks into a funk, typified by Rob Howell’s bizarre set design for Amanda’s pad — a nautical-themed art-deco loft by way of Atlantis.
Gross seems to lose his footing, and his Elyot fails to convey any passion for Amanda. This is a big problem since, plot-wise, there’s only a series of quicksilver switches from desire to annoyance and back again. Cattrall shoulders her share of the heavy lifting with grace and sexiness, but you wish she had a better sparring partner.
But then, maybe that’s Coward’s real message about matrimony: You’re all alone out there.
There’s more than one way to wear a bath towel. That’s the sum total of Kim Cattrall’s entrance costume in Richard Eyre’s larky revival of Noël Coward’s “Private Lives,” which opened on Thursday night at the Music Box Theater.
And because Ms. Cattrall is indivisible in the public imagination from Samantha Jones — the eternally randy character she played on “Sex and the City” — you may find yourself hoping for (or dreading) that moment when she opens her towel to display the goods to a hunky man onstage, or perhaps lets it fall to the floor with an arch “oops.”
But Ms. Cattrall does nothing of the kind. She inhabits a swath of white terrycloth as elegantly as Audrey Hepburn did in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and seems, if anything, a shade more wistfully fey than Holly Golightly was. Sensual this woman may be, but there’s nothing vulgar about her. Before Ms. Cattrall has spoken a line, she has served notice that she’s not about to trash a classy play like “Private Lives.”
Ms. Cattrall’s celebrity is the principal reason for what may seem like a premature revival of Coward’s 1930 comedy of connubial fisticuffs, which was staged to splendid advantage on Broadway only nine years ago. That version, a London import directed by Howard Davies and starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, brilliantly brought out the brooding side of “Private Lives,” and I would have been quite content to let it live unchallenged in my memory for a few more years.
But Mr. Eyre’s production convincingly stakes a claim not only for Ms. Cattrall as a skillfully pliable actress but also for the bubbly pleasures forever on tap in “Private Lives.” This version — which pairs Ms. Cattrall with the excellent Paul Gross as her partner in demi-adultery — doesn’t dig as deep as Mr. Davies’s did.
Designed in a palette of airy pastels by Rob Howell, Mr. Eyre’s production is frothier, broader and sillier than its immediate Broadway predecessor. And theatergoers who prefer their Coward as dry as Cristal Brut may cry “blasphemy.” This is “Private Lives” as farce, for sure.
But without overstressing the point, Mr. Eyre and company make a case for romantic farce as the flip side of romantic tragedy. This production is touched by a subliminal awareness that the desperately, destructively in love Amanda (Ms. Cattrall) and Elyot (Mr. Gross) could, in another context, have gone the route of Romeo and Juliet instead of Punch and Judy. Or, as Elyot says gloomily, raising a glass to Amanda, the woman he divorced but cannot get out of his system, “To hell with love!”
That toast occurs at the end of the first act of “Private Lives,” by which time the perfectly oiled machinery of Coward’s plot has been set into purring motion. We have already gotten to know two couples on their honeymoons in Deauville, France, where each pair has arrived unaware of the other. There are Elyot and his bride, Sybil (played by Anna Madeley as a doughty dowager in the making), and Amanda, who is newly married to the tweedy, pipe-smoking Victor (embodied with enjoyable ramrod rigidity by Simon Paisley Day).
With the cruel symmetry common to farce and tragedy, it emerges that Amanda and Elyot (who were divorced five years earlier after a short-lived, explosive marriage) are inhabiting rooms with adjoining balconies. So it is only a matter of minutes before they spot each other, reigniting those “cosmic thingummies” (Amanda’s term) that once made their life such hell. And so they hotfoot it to Paris, leaving their new spouses behind in bewildered ignorance, determined to live sensibly together.
Not a chance. Coward — an artist of impeccable discipline (and the man who wrote the song “I Am No Good at Love”) — saw passion as a regrettably disruptive force. (It’s worth remembering that he was a gay man at a time when homosexuality was an imprisonable offense.) It is precisely because Amanda and Elyot are so magnetically drawn to each other that they become so combative and possessive.
With Ms. Cattrall and Mr. Gross in the roles, you don’t doubt that Amanda and Elyot have a more than satisfactory time in bed, thank you. But what unites (and divides) them most firmly is stronger than sex. That’s the perspective they share on the world, one that few others appreciate. It’s a philosophy of deep and sincere flippancy, the belief that life (and death) is too damn serious to be taken seriously.
A certain amount of posturing goes along with this attitude. Amanda and Elyot are so in sync that they can always call each other on their pretensions. “You don’t hold any mystery for me, Darling, do you mind?” Elyot says to Amanda. In such knowledge is power, which is as dangerous as it is exciting.
As Mr. Rickman and Ms. Duncan portrayed them (as, I imagine, did Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, who originated them), Amanda and Elyot were almost a single (if internally divided) androgynous being. Mr. Gross and Ms. Cattrall bring a more solid yin and yang to their performances.
Mr. Gross (a Canadian actor best known for the television shows “Due South” and “Slings and Arrows”) has a Dudley Do-Right handsomeness and solidity that could so easily register as bland leading man. But he inflects his masculine presence (as Cary Grant did so marvelously) with an edge of hysteria, of florid exasperation with a world that doesn’t march to his drumbeat.
A purely feminine dewiness infuses Ms. Cattrall’s Amanda, and (more than in any version I’ve seen) a rather poignant hope that she might be able to lead a tranquil life with a nice, boring man. But she also has a steely sense of self, and it’s fun watching Ms. Cattrall morph from pussycat to alley cat and back in the second act, when she and Mr. Gross alternate making love and war. (She works a tad too hard at the social brittleness of the final scene.)
“Private Lives” (which also features Caroline Lena Olsson as the ultimate censorious French housekeeper) loses some control of its rhythms in its last act, its slapstick occasionally turning shrill. And there’s no avoiding the uncomfortable feeling that the unflatteringly drawn Sybil and Victor have been set up for ridicule largely because they aren’t as innately glamorous and witty as Amanda and Elyot.
But the show mostly steers clear of such sourness because of our awareness of a redeeming self-consciousness in Amanda and Elyot. Even when these two are going at it hammer and tongs, you have the sense of their watching themselves, on some level, and being elegantly amused by their inelegant behavior.
A telling, cherishable moment occurs in the second act when Amanda, standing on a settee, strikes an airy, fashion-model pose and then topples onto her bum. She’s a little annoyed, but you can tell that she savors the implicit contradiction of that moment. In this version of Coward’s soignée world, pratfalls are at least as important as poses.
She really isn't Samantha after all. No matter how many times an actor says that he/she isn't actually a TV character, it takes a deft star turn in something big -- this time, "Private Lives" -- to separate someone famous -- that is, Kim Cattrall -- from the imprint of something as pervasive as "Sex and the City."
The separation is complete and impressive. Cattrall, who has been doing serious theater in London for years, may be the obvious reason for this Broadway transfer of Noel Coward's much-done 1930 classic comedy.
But she has been paired off here with Paul Gross, the Canadian star of "due South" and "Slings & Arrows," who matches her in both light-comedy physicality and major sexual chemistry.
Director Richard Eyre's production doesn't compare to the elegant, deeply felt "Private Lives" that Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan brought to Broadway in 2002. But after decades of revivals that exploited Coward's most popular comedy as a sideshow for aging actresses with something to prove (Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins, anyone?), this one keeps the stakes up at what Coward calls the "big tables."
Cattrall is Amanda, Gross is Elyot--volatile and bratty free spirits, divorced for five years, who reignite on the adjoining balconies while on honeymoons with new spouses at the same French hotel.
It's no surprise that Cattrall can play a strong, libidinous woman. What we learn here, however, is that she has an altogether different speaking voice than the one the entire western world can recognize, not to mention a sweet singing voice and, like Gross, the delightful daring of a sophisticated clown.
Coward's stylish couple must inevitably degenerate into tedious low-comedy violence and it's hard to love a man who almost-jokes, "Certain women ought to be struck regularly, like dogs." But Cattrall and Gross make emotional bipolarity seem charming as they flop around the pasha beds in Amanda's flat--part Guggenheim Museum, part Turkish bordello -- designed by Rob Howell.
Anna Madeley makes an aptly chirpy Sybil, Elyot's bride. Simon Paisley Day is a priggy Victor, Amanda's groom. Eyre suggests the jilted spouses have sex, which is unnecessary, and has Elyot kiss Victor on the mouth, which is just wrong. Coward, well known for his "talent to amuse" and his closet homosexuality, would not be amused.
Kim Cattrall is back on Broadway after a 25-year hiatus, playing a woman of a certain age whose enthusiasm for the opposite sex and capacity for drama rival that of any teenager.
No, Sex and the City has not been adapted for the stage — not yet, anyway. And Amanda, Cattrall's character in the new Broadway revival of Noel Coward's Private Lives (*** out of four) that opened Thursday at the Music Box Theatre, is overall a very different creature than Sex's Samantha Jones. For one thing, Amanda dresses a lot more tastefully. She's also been married twice, and though hardly a prude has likely had fewer fellows rumpling her sheets.
For those unfamiliar with the 1930 play, we meet Amanda with her second husband, the doting and hapless Victor, shortly after they arrive in their honeymoon suite. Inconveniently, Amanda's ex, Elyot, is right next door with his new bride, the doting and hapless Sybil. Elyot and Amanda spot one another across a shared terrace, and the sparks that fueled their tempestuous marriage fly anew.
How much you enjoy the ensuing two hours depends to some extent on your tolerance for watching fashion-conscious people who live to dissect relationships — their own and others' — swill cocktails and trade wisecracks, barbs and gossip. Which is to say that, if you're a Sex fan, this may be just the theatrical confection you've been waiting for.
It helps that esteemed director Richard Eyre applies a light, sure hand, and the actors show a similar ease and dexterity. Cattrall's Amanda is adorably feminine, with a breezy, un-self-conscious energy that mitigates the character's narcissism.
As the equally narcissistic Elyot, Canadian actor Paul Gross is less endearing but just as entertaining. For all we're supposed to glean about the uncontrollable erotic pull between Amanda and Elyot, these two talk about sex too much to be sexy; what really matters is the comedic chemistry between them. Gross and Cattrall bounce off the couple's freely-thrown jabs — some of them physical — and make their mutual irritation as amusing as it is understandable.
They also show us the sometimes grudging affection that clearly binds this pair. Amanda and Elyot enjoy each other as much as they annoy each other, and the performers' playful rapport makes their guilty pleasure infectious. They have fine foils, too, in Anna Madeley's pretty, prissy Sybil and Simon Paisley Day's painfully proper but easily unglued Victor.
Rob Howell's sets are suitably stylish, evoking the elegant decadence of these exasperated lovers, whose financial affairs would appear to be in much better order. Howell also designed the snazzy period costumes, which especially flatter Cattrall's curvy form.
In fact, Samantha, wherever she is, would do well to study Amanda's luscious but age-appropriate couture. Just a thought.
For most of his life, Noël Coward was widely regarded as a theatrical lightweight, albeit a brilliant one. Not until the 1960s did the critics start to figure out that "Private Lives," his masterpiece, was something more than (in his own ironically self-deprecating words) "a reasonably well-constructed duologue for two experienced performers, with a couple of extra puppets thrown in to assist the plot and to provide contrast." Needless to say, Coward knew better, and now so do we. Yes, "Private Lives" is a comedy—one of the funniest ever written—but beneath its slapstick lunacy and impish repartee, it preaches a stealthy sermon about hypocrisy that is as much to the point today as it was in 1930. Elyot, the playwright's fictional alter ego, gets right to the heart of the matter when he tells Amanda, his ex-spouse and companion in adultery, to laugh at "the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable.… Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light." Indeed it does, and you don't have to be an anarchist to smile wickedly as Coward's characters poke bruising fun at all the censorious prigs, both moral and political, who talk a better game than they play.
Such artful tutorials deserve to be seen regularly. Alas, it's been nine years since "Private Lives" was last performed on Broadway, but that production, which starred Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, was so good that playgoers are still buzzing about it. Not since then has there been a first-rate big-ticket Coward revival in New York, which explains part of the general interest in the new "Private Lives" that just sailed in from London by way of Toronto. Most of it, though, arises from the onstage presence of Kim Cattrall, lately and famously of "Sex and the City," who plays Amanda. In New York that may sound like stunt casting of the worst kind, but Ms. Cattrall is well known in England as a serious stage actress. She is not, however, an ideal Amanda, and though there are many good things about Richard Eyre's staging, her performance is not one of them.
For starters, Ms. Cattrall lacks the silken lightness of touch necessary to play Amanda convincingly. Paul Gross, her Elyot, has it in abundance, which is why he gets most of the laughs. Not only does he know how to flick off his lines with sly casualness, but he does it without imitating Coward's style of acting, which makes his performance all the more effective. He and Ms. Cattrall have terrific onstage chemistry, and their romantic scenes couldn't be sexier, but whenever the tone of "Private Lives" turns comic, her overemphatic, inadequately varied delivery undercuts the humor.
Just as important, Ms. Cattrall, who makes no secret of being 55, has been cast as a 30ish beauty in a play about the "bright young things" of whom Coward himself was a prime example. When "Private Lives" opened in 1930, he was 30 and Gertrude Lawrence, his co-star, was 32, and their self-evident youth was central to the play's effect. Ms. Cattrall, to be sure, looks gorgeous, but she doesn't look 30, and the fact that the play has been recast to accommodate her age—Mr. Gross is 52—distorts it still further. We've been down this road before, most recently with the disappointing 2010 Broadway revival of Coward's "Present Laughter," in which Victor Garber was so much older than the role he was playing that the script had to be altered to cover up the fact. While nothing as bad as that happens in "Private Lives," in part because Mr. Gross really doesn't look his age, it's still a mistake to cast Amanda as a cougar on the loose.
Mr. Eyre, whose work hasn't been seen much on Broadway of late, mostly sticks to the script, letting Coward's lines make their point without excessive directorial interference. Only the knock-down-drag-out fight that ends the second act fails to register, in part because Rob Howell's distractingly spectacular deco-modern set isn't cluttered enough to let Elyot and Amanda whip up a sufficiently chaotic mess. You get the feeling that they're pulling their punches, which can't be right.
Simon Paisley Day and Anna Madeley are both very fine as the ever-so-conventional types whom Elyot and Amanda marry in an increasingly desperate attempt to escape from one another. Between Mr. Day's stiff-upper-lip Victor and Mr. Gross's urbanely exasperated Elyot, this "Private Lives" is quite good enough to be worth seeing. But Ms. Cattrall's earthbound performance keeps it from taking wing, and a production of "Private Lives" that fails to soar can't help but disappoint.