Surface Lives

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

In 2002, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan did a remarkable
thing: They scraped years of camp off Noel Coward’s classic Private Lives, a play that had long been considered a warhorse for
actresses of a certain age (starting with Tallulah Bankhead’s endless national
tour during the 1940s, and then starring everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Joan
Collins). —Instead of glamorous people doing languidly glamorous things between
drawling quips, Rickman and Duncan, under the direction of Howard Davies, found
the terrified, beating heart beneath the Art Deco lacquer, and the result has
lingered in memories for the last decade.

Now, star Kim Cattrall and director Richard Eyre have
imported their London production of Private Lives to New York City after a brief stop in Canada.
Cattrall, best known for her role as the sexual adventurous and unapologetic
Samantha Jones on Sex and the City, must
do double duty as an actress here: fighting both audience’s ideas about her and
the skepticism that she belongs in the same category as Duncan, Bankhead,
Gertrude Lawrence and Tammy Grimes (who won a Tony for her performance). A
practiced comedian, Cattrall is the best thing in this limp, unnecessary new

A classic screwball comedy, Private Lives finds divorced duo Amanda (Cattrall) and Elyot (Paul
Gross) honeymooning in adjoining suites on the Riviera. Unable to resist their
attraction now that they are returned to one another’s side, they escape her
dreary husband (Simon Paisley Day) and his shrill young wife (Anna Madeley) for
a new start at life in Amanda’s Parisian apartment—which, of course, goes
spectacularly off the rails as their quibbles and quarrels increase in volume
and violence.

Unfortunately, things get off to a bad start immediately
thanks to Rob Howell’s set, easily the ugliest Broadway set it has ever been my
misfortune to stare at. Instead of a sleek and stylish 1930s exterior for the
act one hotel, Howell has thrown up some faded green shutters and dumped a few
dusty ficus trees to indicate a balcony, a look better suited for a revival of Night
of the Iguana
than Noel Coward. But the
first act set is nothing compared to the hideous pastels of Amanda’s curiously
cavernous apartment in the second act. Because the set is so empty, the
claws-out scrabble between Amanda and Elyot feels as if it’s occurring in slow
motion, as they cross a football field to stage slap one another.

Eyre’s production errs on the side of farce, keeping things
bubbling merrily along without examining too closely the emotions beneath the
brawls and drawls. A spit take from Cattrall feels overly calculated; so, too,
does much of the second act, with the power dynamics between the two couples
shifting back and forth with an unsurprising regularity, even for fans of the
play. Gross is engagingly funny in a matinee idol way, but his Elyot is a
little too manic, more Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace than Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story. And Day and Madeley find little to their roles as
the abandoned spouses.

There is nothing wrong with a shallow Private Lives, of course; as farces go, Coward’s is among the
cream of the crop and works as a sheer comedy. But for those of us who
witnessed Lindsay Duncan wringing about a dozen nuances out of the sentence
“Very flat, Norfolk,” there’s no going back to a simply comedic