Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 17, 2011
Private Lives by Noël Coward. Directed by Richard Eyre. Set and costume design by Rob Howell. Lighting design by David Howe. Cast: Kim Cattrall, Paul Gross, Simon Paisley Day, Anna Madeley, Caroline Lena Olsson.
As for whether this revival's stars, Kim Cattrall (who originated the role for Eyre in the U.K. last year) and Paul Gross (of TV's Due South and Slings and Arrows), are the equals or the betters of the originals (Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence), I can't say. But what's evident is that the simmering sexual tension between these two, as well as between their costars Simon Paisley Day and Anna Madeley, is more than enough to not only keep this charmingly caustic comedy afloat but let it register as much sharper and much funnier than the last Broadway revival (starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, in 2002).
From his first appearance on Rob Howell's Summer Stock–suggestive Deauville balcony set, Gross projects pure smothered satisfaction. Though his outward feelings for his new wife, Sybil (Madeley), are warm and evident, the actor tints his every line, gesture, and kiss with the sense of settling. He looks right at home in Howell's cozy costumes, first a casual suit and later a form-fitting tuxedo, but his emptiness is palpable behind the social graces within which he knows he must function. However free-thinking this Elyot may claim to be, on some level he's a slave to propriety. This causes him all sorts of problems when he chooses instead to follow his heart, even when he knows it will lead somewhere terrible.
That turns out, of course, to be the adjoining room, where Amanda (Cattrall) is honeymooning with her own new husband, Victor (Day). From her first appearance half-wrapped in a towel, it's obvious that she too is comfortable almost to a fault. Her interactions with the reliable but stick-in-the-muddish Victor are decidedly pleasant, but also guarded, as though she's so used to not having to divulge certain things to her partner that she's confounded by having to actually utter the words aloud. Her frustration over this builds slowly, until we see she's just as trapped as Elyot, and for many of the same reasons, and just as unable to extricate herself. Yet Cattrall never lets up on the sauciness, which helps her maintain Amanda's "exquisite," vivacious, and even coquettish profile throughout any peaks and valleys.
But when Elyot and Amanda meet, after a fair amount of pseudo-farcical romping, the defenses they've constructed around themselves come down and the air around them heats up. The two actors have radiated assurance to this point, but it's now that they become so immediately comfortable with each other that you need no additional convincing that this is a match that cannot be easily unmade. Their over-the-shoulder slyness and champagne-dry floridity interlock so completely it's as if you're seeing a single soul emerge from two formerly disparate parts. You believe that they could both mingle effortlessly with the upper crust and upend the entire insincere gaggle with a verbal uppercut administered from behind steadfastly balanced cocktail glasses.
The two acts that follow, in which Elyot and Amanda sail the heights and plumb the depths of their feelings for each other (often at the same time, or at any rate within quick succession) while tromping around and tearing down Howell's far more exotic mod living room set, amplify these initial impressions. Apparently without realizing it, they adopt each other's attitudes and physicality, until Elyot is a sweeping sarcasm dispenser and Amanda is pulling the strings of discord through a barely concealed sneer. This couple's bickering, and the rougher physical contact it sometimes becomes (Gross takes a hard slap full on across the face at one point), never seems like anything other than an extension of that most painful of realizations: that the two of them belong together.
Eyre takes his time in developing this, perhaps too much, but the seeds eventually sprout into solid excitement. You come to understand that Elyot and Amanda's "skills" were dull and rusty, but become deadly weapons once they're honed with constant contact. The build across Acts II and III, from petty squabbles to nuclear explosions to passive-aggressive onslaughts, is exactly what's needed to keep the action pushing ever forward and ever upward.
Eyre tries to take Day and Madeley on a similar journey, but you witness only several vital waypoints. At the start of the show, they're in their own universes; by the end, they're locked in their own violent union with each other. But some leaps of logic leave you wondering why they'd join forces to bring Elyot and Amanda home. Madeley's Sybil evinces genuine affection for Elyot, but you don't quite see what makes their pairing tick; Day has no trouble enveloping himself in Coward's pointed dialogue, but doesn't progress beyond treating Amanda as a business transaction. They seem to need each other from the start, but have little use for their current legal partners. That dulls the impact of the plot's evolution somewhat.
Everything else shines, however. From start to finish this production conveys with absolute precision the dueling importance and instability of love, as well as the marvel and the madness of being with your perfect mate, even if you don't know it (or, more likely, don't want to admit it). That was laceratingly relevant 80 years ago, and remains so today. Amanda and Elyot could be the next-door neighbors who apparently never stop fighting, yet seem to have the best relationship of anyone you know. Who knows how they manage it? Chemistry is difficult to explain, but you know the best reactions when you see them. In this Private Lives, you see them burn brightly — and, more important, you see them burn often.