This is (for me) one of the saddest sentences I’ve ever typed as a critic: I sure wanted to like the revival of Noël Coward’s Private Lives better than I did.
The classic comedy, as you no doubt know, is about a divorced, yet still pining, couple who cannot live peacefully with each other yet cannot withstand passionless lives apart. And when it was announced that Amanda would be Kim Cattral and Elyot Paul Gross, I thought it sounded almost…definitive. Ms. Cattral has famously fashioned her career upon an onscreen and public persona of unquenchable sexuality, most prominently in the light comedy-drama context of the TV series Sex and the City; and Mr. Gross, best known in the US for his leading roles in the imported Canadian series Due South and Slings & Arrows, in which he demonstrated a comic touch of gossamer subtlety, is one of those rare, indecently good-looking leading men who also happens to be as brilliantly talented and versatile as he is handsome (said versatility extending also to being a writer-director-producer who has become one of the most powerful players in Canadian television). The combo could not have been better.
On stage…well, what can I say? It’s okay. It’s just okay. But the sparks aren’t flying.
Mr. Gross has a fine way with exasperation, but isn’t tapping into the electric sense of danger and risk he conveyed as the beleaguered artistic director in Slings & Arrows, nor drawing enough upon the shield of propriety he perfected as the displaced Mountie in Due South. He’s just sort of delivering Elyot without owning him. And in heated moments he shouts too much, without modulation or nuance. There’s no question he has a better Elyot within, that hasn’t been unleashed; all the indicia are there. What’s dampening him?
At a guess, two things:
first: I’m sorry, Ms. Cattrall isn’t all that swell. Competent to be sure, but
devastatingly alluring, feral, brilliantly comic? That, alas, no, not in this production. It feels as
if she’s working a little too hard, as if she hasn’t found, or simply hasn’t
got, the center of the character, so does her best with an approximation given
to too much volatility. By which I mean, she shouts too much, without
modulation or nuance.
And then there’s director Richard Eyre’s production. Its physical design is so unremarkable as to downplay elegance in the first act, set on the balcony; and in the second two acts, set in a flat in Paris, the enormity of the space and the peculiarity of the set pieces work against the timing of comedy. Also the use of the pieces. For example: there’s a prominent fishtank onstage, in the shape of two big bubbles connected by a passageway; the fish are live and active, which occasionally pulls focus from actors who are presumably the same. Worse, as a consequence of an Amanda-Elyot quarrel, a hole—or so we are led to believe—gets punched in the tank and water spurts out until someone gets the idea to plug it up with a nearby prop meeting the hole’s diameter. Well, during the leak, which goes on for a while—the comedy presumably arising from duration—something curious happens…more accurately doesn’t happen: the water level in the tank doesn’t go down. Therefore the fish are in no real jeopardy, therefore we don’t worry, therefore the leak is undeniably a phony effect, therefore not only is the physical comedy drained (pun intended) of its urgency…but we know we’re being lied to. Mr. Eyre as much as announces that nothing is real. This may sound like a small detail, but in fact the allowance of any such discrepancy is usually the symptomatic representation of a larger problem, and indeed that problem is a lack of authenticity throughout.
It has been observed that this staging of Private Lives earns its keep by delivering its characters in a manner more dimensional than brittle, but I have to say I think this is errant nonsense. Noël Coward’s comedies, whatever else may be true about them, however you may choose to dramatize what lies beneath—are about wit first. And the authenticity of wit. Wit, archness, attitude. This may sound like emphasis on what is only a surface attribute, but really it’s the reverse. Because the greater the understanding of the dry, bubbly style, the more deeply the subtextual layers are revealed. And that requires tight precision. (I’ve only seen one good Private Lives in my theatergoing life, and that was my first: On Broadway, it starred Maggie Smith, an international star, and John Standing—who much like Mr. Gross, was best known in his native country, that being England. And it was directed by Sir John Gielgud. Need I even describe the precision? It was heaven. It was so sharp you’d’ve been afraid to handle the script for fear of getting paper cuts from every page.)
But here on the stage of the Music Box—not so much. That is, except for Anna Madeley and Simon Paisley Day as the secondary couple. They’re very much in the groove of the play—weirdly, given that the director seems not to be—and that only underscores what’s missing even further. The production’s not horrible, it’s no disgrace, nothing to be ashamed of, all moderately respectable, all professionally proficient, despite everything. It just isn’t Best Game goods. And in a Cowardesque comedy about the game of love, well…
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