“What happens if one of us dies? Does the one that’s left, still laugh?” Amanda asks Elyot in the words of Noel Coward.
In the long-playing HBO series “Sex and the City,” Kim Cattrall was known for the healthy super sexuality she exuded over and over as the various plots moved between women’s liberation and women’s subjection; a need for true freedom and true love. In this often shocking TV comedy/drama about materialism (expensive shoes) and searching for Mr. Right in all the wrong places, Kim often got the lion’s share of blame for excessive onscreen behavior. I know that this very fine actress began to think she’d never live down the character “Samantha.”
So, now Kim Cattrall, who went home to England to change her scene, can redeem this TV caricature by an artful but healthy bow in Noel Coward’s 1930s sophisticated farce and comedy classic, “Private Lives.”
As Ms. Cattrall is a born Brit (something she doesn’t get enough “credit” for, or the public chooses to ignore) she falls into place rightly as an upscale, willful, tempestuous, sometimes ladylike/sometimes not — leading lady. She is right at home in Coward’s witty look at upper class romance just before World War II, when people wasted time lighting cigarettes, having too many drinks and being very, very cynical and sophisticated. The first act of “Private Lives” is like an old familiar fairy tale for those of us long smitten by the stage. We know all the lines, witty rejoinders, banal asides and throwaway laughs.
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I FOUND it quite refreshing to sink into the Master’s world. (I knew him, ever so slightly.) And in this production’s first act, there is an amusingly precarious cocktail left perched on the iron railing of the first set. Will it be knocked into the audience or won’t it? The suspense was killing.
Kim Cattrall is brittle, heartbreaking, childishly tempestuous, then willfully sexy or winningly adult as the romantic Amanda. And, her cohort, Canada’s well-known Paul Gross, strikes me as just about the sexiest, most intelligent leading man in ages. He is a very fine actor, endowing Coward’s hoariest lines with new emphasis so that they sound fresh and unique.
The two rejected mates in “Private Lives” — Sybil (Anna Madeley) and Victor (Simon Paisley Day) – have always been like dart boards waiting to be punctured. Coward made them too stuffy, silly, conventional and horrid. It’s not how Amanda and Elyot will erase them — but when?
If Noel Coward had a moral in “Private Lives,” it’s that great sexual attraction leads to conflict. And love is always cruel. Coward was, I think, more interested in vaunting an unconventional mindset over 1930s mores. Yet, the more he twitted everything about the upper classes, the more he entered into his love of fame, fortune, the Royal Family and “fitting in” himself. We recognize these traits over and over in ambitious people.
We have had “Private Lives” again and again on the Broadway stage. The last two I truly enjoyed — Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1983 and the 2002 production with Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman. This new version is upper class worthy for new and old audiences, though I found the sets drastically unimaginable. The play itself is very much “the way it was” and the actors are up for it. The direction by Richard Eyre has plenty of funny action: fishbowls springing leaks, people being hurtled through the air onto beds and sofas, actors as projectiles aimed at closed doors which they safely sail right through. And more action – females slapping males, being “struck like gongs” themselves, all kinds of non-P.C. behavior that still exists. And now amazes us.
Best part of the night? Kim Cattrall, with artful superiority and charm, buries “Samantha” – at least for a few hours! This girl can actually do just about anything when it comes to acting.
Once upon a time, going to see “Private Lives” by Noel Coward would have been hackneyed, over-familiar and trite. Now, it seems fresh and charming, because it highlights a world we can hardly believe ever existed.