We gave it a B
”Trivial and superficial” is an entirely appropriate description of both Noël Coward’s now octogenarian Private Lives and director Richard Eyre’s new Broadway production. And while it isn’t the kind of quote theater producers like to slap on advertising posters, it is meant as a compliment — and might well have been taken as one by Coward himself.
In fact, those very words are used in the course of the legendary English playwright’s comedy of manners about the lead male, Elyot (Paul Gross), whose French honeymoon at a Deauville hotel is disrupted (obliterated, really) by the discovery that his ex-wife, Amanda (Kim Cattrall), is occupying the adjacent, balcony-boasting room with her new spouse. Almost immediately, the fiery former lovers elope — if that’s the right word to use in this fairly unique circumstance — and spend much of the rest of the play wittily insulting each other and lustily making up in Amanda’s Paris flat while they await the inevitable showdown with their respective spouses.
Coward’s frothily acidic confection has proven a star magnet over the years. Gross and Cattrall follow in the footsteps of Coward and Gertrude Lawrence (for whom the play was written), Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, to name but a few. The TV veterans do so ably, handling Coward’s bon mots with enthusiastic aplomb and investing their characters with the small amount of actual humanity necessary for you to even remotely care what happens to them.
After umpteen years portraying Samantha on the numerous iterations of Sex and the City, Cattrall could probably handle this stuff standing on her curly-coiffed head — and comes close to doing so during a deliberately bizarre sort-of dance routine — but Gross seems equally comfortable delivering Coward-esque tartness. Close your eyes and there are times when you could almost believe it was the great man himself on stage, while also giving your ocular equipment a rest from designer Rob Howell’s gargantuan boudoir-meets-Bond-villain bedroom set that physically dominates the play’s second half. As the abandoned better-halves, Simon Paisley Day and Anna Madeley are perfectly fine, which is really the best they’re ever going to be given that the characters are effectively walking punch bags on which Elyot and Amanda land verbal blows.
Speaking of punches, Elyot is a romantic ”hero” who practices his preaching that ”certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.” And the sight of Gross laying a hand on Cattrall is shocking today. But Eyre makes clear — as Coward did — that Amanda is capable of giving as good as she gets. For the most part, Coward’s louche shenanigans feel remarkably modern. If nothing else, this zesty production of Private Lives is a reminder that some people were writing about sex in the city decades before Candace Bushnell was even born. B
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)