Private Lives

Music Box Theatre, NYC - Nov. 2011

Review by John Kenrick

Fans of Noel Coward, rejoice! The Master's comic masterwork Private Lives is back on Broadway in a production that is sure to delight both longtime devotees and those lucky enough to be first-time viewers.

I say "lucky" because any theatregoer is fortunate indeed to see a real star dazzle so brightly. Sex in the City's Kim Cattrall is the star attraction in this revival, and she portrays the complex Amanda with an irresistible mix of high style, steamy sex appeal, physical comic flair and overall brilliance. As a result, this character's treacherous shifts from bursts of sparkling repartee to outright gutter brawling become readily believable, allowing Coward's farce to spotlight the outrageous contradictions that often lie within people's private lives. Cattrall can drip class wearing nothing more than a tightly folded towel, and breathe palpable fire while draped in billowy silk pajamas. I have seen many stars take on this perplexing role with varying degrees of success, but have never seen anyone capture every facet of Amanda's seeming contradictions more effectively. It has been a quarter century since Ms. Cattrall was last on Broadway (in the 1986 production Wild Honey), and one hopes she will return swiftly and often.

The same can be said for Cattrall's hunky co-star Paul Gross (of TV's Due South and the hilarious Slings and Arrows), who makes an extremely impressive Broadway debut as Elyot, the ex-husband who unintentionally bumps into Amanda while both are honeymooning with new spouses. Gross combines matinee idol looks and a powerful stage presence with exceptional comic timing, making him the perfect foil for Cattrall. For once, there is no question that that these star-crossed characters are not just drawn together by a common gift for wit, but also by irresistible sexual attraction. Their chemistry is undeniable whether exchanging venomous verbal barbs, sharing passionate embraces, or murderously hurling art deco bric-a-brac at each other. The fact that Mr. Gross has until now limited his stage work to Canada gives American fresh reason to be a tad envious of our northern neighbors.

Director Richard Eyre has done a superb job of giving us access into the main character's hearts while still letting farce reign supreme. True, the lesser characters are not all that well served here. Anna Madeley never gets to make Sybil more than a whiny annoyance, and Caroline Lena Olsson is given no comic opportunities as the French maid. However, Simon Paisley Day plays Amanda's second husband Victor to stodgy, blustering perfection, and his third act confrontation with Elyot is one of the surprise highlights of this production.

Although Rob Howell's first act Riviera hotel set is so frowsy one suspects it was assembled during a remnant sale at Home Depot, his second act set for Amanda's Paris apartment is an eye-popping knockout -- if the extraordinary contrast was intentional, it certainly pays off. Howell's costumes are pure period perfection, and everything is enriched by David Howe's inventive lighting and Alison De Burgh's highly effective fight sequences.

Most importantly, Eyre and his cohorts clearly understand what Coward was up to when he wrote this play. Yes, it is a rollicking farce, but it also has genuine depth. As Amanda and Elyot teeter between romance and all out war, they share a devotion to triviality was their preferred defense against the uncertainties of existence. When, after the insane ups and downs, they look at one another with genuine affection, it is because they realize that, for better or worse, they are truly soul mates -- fated to passionately clash and cling till death do them part.

Whether you already know and love this play or have never seen a Coward comedy before, I urge you get yourself into the impossibly handsome Music Box Theatre and enjoy this exceptional Private Lives. People will be justifiably praising this hilarious staging and the stylish performances of Cattrall and Gross for many years to come.

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