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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
I've been a Paul Gross fan even though I've only seen him on screen as the beleaguered artistic director of a theater festival in the wonderful made for TV series Slings and Arrows. Now that Gross is live on Broadway, all I can say is "Lucky Amanda!" Her new Elyot is tall, dark and handsome, the sort of debonair leading man born to wear tuxedos and silk dressing gowns. And he foxtrots divinely and even sings "Someday I'll Find You" as charmingly as she does. It's enough to ignore Elyot's less than charming pronouncements like the one about how "certain women ought to be struck regularly like gongs." No wonder this passionate relationship between two people old enough to know better (both Cattrall and Gross are in their fifties but don't look it) ignites with believable sizzle on the Music Box stage.
Considering that I've seen my share of these idle rich hedonists who can't live peacefully together but are miserable apart, I've found myself mumbling "enough already" when faced with seeing another revival of this smartly constructed, bon mot stuffed marital comedy. But along comes a production with another cast worth watching and those ho-hum thoughts vanish like the smoke from the cigarettes Amanda and Elyot constantly smoke. My "Lucky Amanda" thus also demands a "Lucky You!" -- meaning all of you theater goers who get a chance to see this Private Lives.
Besides the superb leads, the Broadway Private Lives features Simon Paisley Day, one of the best and most memorably uptight Victors I've ever seen (like Cattrall he is reprising his 2010 London performance). The rather unnecessary directorial filip that has Gross shock the prim and proper Victor with a kiss on the lips is offset by the priceless moment when, after tracking down Amanda and Elyot and faced with a night on the living room floor of their love nest, Victor carefully places his pants under the piano for an overnight pressing. Anna Madeley, who like Gross is new to this production, makes Sybil's quibbles delightful.
All things considered, whether you side with those who regard Private Lives as Coward's masterpiece or those who dismiss it as a tantalzing trifle that top drawer actors love to do, it is old-fashioned and mannered, under Richard Eyre's direction the Cowardesque wit still tantalizes and sparkles and the bon mots land with marvelous precision.
The actors not only exemplify perfect comic timing but reveal the skill with which Coward dramatized the tenderness and the seemingly uncontrollable lack of same between the brittle yet oddly vulnerable main couple. Their more conventional counterparts, the rejected new spouses, are also the creations of a master of the well constructed play. In less clever hands, Sybil and Victor would become a couple, but committed as Coward was to entertaining and amusing his audience, he turns the expected ending on its head for an amusingly ambiguous finale.
In this age of directors who push and pull classic stage vehicles in new directions, I suppose some day, if the Coward estate loses control of insuring that Coward's work is honored, some cutting edge specialist will come along with an updated Private Lives — perhaps Amanda and Elyott will get naked and go well beyond passionate embraces on a bare bones set. I hope I'll have retired from reviewing if that day ever comes.
In the meantime, my "Lucky You" also means you will enjoy Rob Howell's sets and costumes. The first act is dominated by the adequate if not spectacular balcony of adjoining suites in a French resort hotel from which unexpectedly reunited divorced lovers escape their respective new spouses before their new unions are consummated. During the one necessarily longer than usual intermission the balcony setting is transformed into Amanda's Art Deco rooftop Parisian pied-?-terre with walls and accessories done up in an amusingly symbolic and stunning fish motif. It's stagecraft magic! Howell's costumes for Sybil and Victor add to the visual pleasures.
When a show transfers from one side to the other, there's always some concern about something getting lost, especially when the cast is not totally intact. This Private Lives has sailed from London to New York without a quibble for Sybil. . .or anyone else on stage or back stage.
The last Private Lives on Broadway in 2002 was also a successful London transfer. The very suave Elyot of that production, Alan Rickman, has also returned to Broadway to star in a brand new play, Seminar, by an American playwright Theresa Rebeck. He'll be playing a very different professor from his Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films. There's a picture of the 2002 Elyot, now white-haired, on page 14 of your Private Lives Playbill. Here's hoping, that Paul Gross will like Mr. Rickman, return to Broadway -- and that we won't have to wait almost ten years until he does. Ditto for his colleagues.
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