nytheatre.com review by Judith Jarosz
November 22, 2011
In Private Lives, Noel Coward’s enduring classic comedy, Elyot and Amanda are two cosmopolitan socialites in the 1930s who have met, fallen in love, and after a short, fiercely passionate but extremely volatile marriage, acquired an acrimonious divorce, and parted ways, supposedly for good. We meet them five years later, where they are on honeymoons with new spouses, and fate has booked them into the same hotel with rooms and balconies right next to each other. Add to this that their simmering passion for each other has never left them, and the insecurity and suspicion of this fact in each of their new partners, and you have a lively set-up. When the two decide to run off to Paris together, they are hotly pursued by their discarded mates and a showdown ensues. No one does it quite the same way as playwright Coward, and the fact that Private Lives has stood the test of time is clearly evident in its constant productions around the globe. Most actors would love to get a crack at these roles and the list of famous folk that have is a mile long. Broadway had its last revival of this piece only seven years ago.
This time around the two leading roles are taken by the alluring Kim Cattrall of TV and film's Sex and the City, and Paul Gross, the charismatic Canadian actor probably best known to American audiences for his hilarious turn as the artistic director of a troubled theater company in the much too short-lived comedy series Slings and Arrows. (Would someone please bring that series back?). Both artists are also trained seasoned stage performers, and both are a pleasure to watch.
There are many ways to play a great role and part of the fun of seeing a classic piece over and over is watching how good actors interpret them. In this production Cattrall and Gross bring a spunky kind of middle-aged adolescent energy to the leading couple. Since first reading the play as a young girl, I have always thought of Elyot as a man who is used to having an image of keeping his cool, so that when he does lose his temper, it makes it all the more amusing. This is also how I have usually seen him played in the past. Gross plays him more like an energetic puppy with anger management issues, whose mood can change abruptly. The fact that this choice also works, is a tribute to both the durability of the Coward’s script and to Gross's talents. Cattrall gives Amanda a youthful, wistful kind of aura that is charming and not as brittle a portrayal as some I have seen. Both artists have the clear speech and comedic timing to pull off this kind of style. Less jaded then many interpretations, these two are like middle-aged “mostly” lovable brats. You want to smack them, but they still make you laugh. It‘s different, and it’s fun.
In the supporting roles of the new spouses, Victor and Sybil, Simon Paisley Day and Anna Madeley do well enough. Day imbues Victor with the appropriate amount of stuffiness and Madeley captures most of the simpering annoyances of Sybil, but neither actor’s choices are strong enough to make these characters memorable. Similarly, Caroline Lena Olsson as the French maid Louise seems to be underplaying possible comedic moments. It is as though these three are making it clear that they know who the leads are and are choosing to tread softly. Because Cattrall and Gross are playing their roles rather broadly, this throws the balance in style off a bit.
For the most part director Richard Eyre keeps the action lively, though the second act feels a bit slow at times. Set and costumes are by Rob Howell, and while the costumes are gorgeous and capture the feel of 1930s glamour, I found the first act hotel balconies set merely functional and the Paris flat of the second and third act over the top and distracting (that fish tank!) with a cavernous feel that is not conducive to either a cozy tryst, or that trapped feeling you get when fighting with a partner and there’s nowhere to go. This place is more like a quirky luxury loft in SoHo, with plenty of places to hide. The efficient lighting design by David Howe does help throughout.
Watching really good actors do a classic is always worthwhile. If you appreciate the humor of Noel Coward, and don’t mind a slightly different take on it, this is worthwhile trip to the theater.