Written by Noël Coward
Directed by Sir Richard Eyre
Location: Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., New York, NY
Set Designer: Rob Howell, Lighting: David Howe, Costumes: Rob Howell, Sound Design: Chris Cronin
Starring Kim Cattrall, Paul Gross, Anna Madeley, Simon Paisley Day, Caroline Lena Olsson
Cattrall and Gross Shine in a Noël Coward Classic
New York theatergoers love to winge about the casting of stars from other media being cynically shoehorned into Broadway shows in a shameless effort to attract broader audiences and justify high ticket prices. Some of this indignation is justified, as quite a few shows have suffered from the inclusion of Hollywood A-listers who can’t really cut it on stage. In that light, it is very tempting to walk into the Music Box Theater with one’s eyes already pre-jaundiced. The latest revival of Noël Coward’s quintessential froth-fest features television heavyweights Paul Gross and Kim Cattral, sure to appeal to the reliable demographic of middle aged and upper middle-income ticket buyers.
Luckily, any such anti-Tinseltown prejudices are quickly dispelled within the first few minutes of Private Lives. Cattrall and Gross, who both sport impressive theatrical résumés in addition to their IMDB credits, are perfectly at home with Coward’s pacing, elegance and theatricality. At the same time, they wisely steer clear of old school stiffness or stock deliveries of the play’s well known zingers. Under the direction of Sir Richard Eyre and Anna Ledwich, the two leads add a dash of the rawness and believability of contemporary acting, while scrupulously maintaining the necessary period accents and grand sense of style. The other members of the quartet of mismatched lovers are treated in a more farcical manner, which provides an effective counterpoint to the realism of the two leads. Chirpy Sybil (Anna Madeley) and upright Victor (Simon Paisley Day) are not so much stereotypes as self-made social caricatures: models of British propriety for whom original thinking would be deemed unseemly.
Much of the humor in Private Lives is visual, and the design team helps create an atmosphere of wonky elegance that frames the action well. Rob Howell’s set is especially effective in the difficult opening scene, which takes place on two adjacent balconies. Mr. and Mrs. Elyot Chase (Gross and Madeley) are on their honeymoon in the south of France. Determined to be happy this time out, Elyot goes through the motions of dressing for dinner, sipping cocktails and admiring the view. It’s all old hat to him, but the bubbly Sybil freshens his spirit with her youthful enthusiasm. Mingled with their blithe banter, though, are some troubling revelations about Elyot’s past. Terrible rancor existed between him and his ex, Amanda, and he is anxious to put the experience behind him.
In the next room resides another pair of newlyweds, equally aggressive in their determination to manufacture wedded bliss. They are, of course, the Prynnes, Victor and (uh-oh!) Amanda. While their spouses are off puttering in their hotel rooms, Elyot and Amanda catch sight of each other across the balustrade. Efforts at small talk and cordiality prove futile as the old chemistry begins to crackle once again. Even as they indict one another for past offenses, their exchanges are charged with passion. In an effort to avoid disaster Elyot lies to Sybil, concocting an excuse to scurry off to Paris. The tactic backfires: voices are raised and tears shed. Amanda dutifully informs Victor of Elyot’s presence, but her results aren’t much better. Soon it becomes apparent that Elyot and Amanda can no more remain apart than they could live together. Off they run to Paris, leaving their respective mates in limbo.
Settling into an art deco apartment (so inspired in its design that the set itself drew a round of applause) the lovers briefly enjoy an ecstatic reunion. But they are soon reminded of the reasons they split in the first place. Arguments simmer, subside, intensify and explode. Objects are thrown, physical and verbal tussles leave the place a shambles. The relationship seems about to end before it’s begun. Soon, though, hope arrives in the form of the two jilted ex-spouses. Seeking to settle the score, Victor and Sybil create a whole new crisis, exacerbated by an inefficient French maid (Caroline Lena Olsson). In the ensuing mayhem, the true meaning of marriage makes itself known.
Coward’s crisp dialogue still plays, and most of the humor derives from relationship dynamics rather than the manners or politics an earlier time. Only in one moment does the material feel dated. In the midst of a particularly nasty squabble, Elyot loses his temper and slaps Amanda’s face. Perhaps in 1930 audiences could write such an action off as laughable domestic give-and-take. Today a man who strikes a woman, with or without provocation, is (rightly) considered an abuser. The scene is played well, with Gross making as little contact with Cattrall as possible. But no matter how carefully staged, it’s an uncomfortable image when viewed through a modern sensibility. Naturally Amanda gets her shots in too, and the comedy gets back on course. Inevitably, though, the antics of the closing scenes take on a somewhat a darker hue.
All in all, however, the twin passions of love and hate that animate Coward’s characters are perceptively drawn and bitingly funny. Private Lives makes an apt companion piece to the revivals of Brief Encounter, Blithe Spirit and Present Laughter that have cropped up recently on the New York stage. Coward seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance, and rightly so. His wit remains sharp by the standards of any generation, but there’s more to his work than just the droll repartee with which his name has become synonymous. As this well-toned and energetic production proves, there was a man of substance behind those famous velvet lapels.