Marriage in Noel Coward’s plays is no fairytale. As a gay man, marriage for Coward in real life was unthinkable in 1930, and so he took the role left to him — that of a gimlet-eyed outsider who devoted himself to skewering the conventions and accepted artifice of the conventional marriage state, which when fueled by alcohol, selfishness, but also wit, create a mix too volatile not to combust.
From this, Coward created “Private Lives,” a ferociously comic and cynical look at the relationship of Elyot and Amanda, who, as the cliché goes, can neither live with nor without one another. A divorced couple, they run into each other by chance on their honeymoons with their new spouses, discover the flame still burns, abandon their new marriages, and run off to Paris, where they resume their tempestuous affair.
Seen in 2011 –– when gay marriage is possible but still very much contested and traditional marriage, though still held sacrosanct, frequently leads to high profile disasters, Coward’s chafing against the strictures of conventional morality takes on added trenchancy, underscoring how little moral posturing can contain human lusts and passion. How can the gleefully amoral Elyot and Amanda be vilified for leaving wreckage in their wake, when they clearly achieve a level of honesty that evades the other characters?
The play sparkles, replete with one-liners, silly situations, and a brawl worthy of professional wrestling, all of which contribute further to Coward’s skewering of propriety’s veneer. The arc of the play travels from romantic notion to grim reality to mordant acceptance of life’s ironies and their immutability.
It’s unfortunate, then, that director Richard Eyre’s new production of the play should fall so flat. The words are all there and the actors hit their marks, but there is something heavy at the center that makes the production plodding and ultimately boring, largely because the play is miscast.
Kim Cattrall stars as Amanda, and she’s at least 20 years too old for the part. If that seems unkind, so be it. As an actress, Cattrall has neither the light touch nor the underpinnings of class that make Amanda so charming, if solipsistic. In Cattrall’s performance, Amanda becomes, in contemporary terms, a cougar, and what should be carefree flouting of convention becomes desperate last grasp at youth. Cattrall is best known as the sexually predatory but often frustrated Samantha Jones on “Sex and the City,” and the fact she was no ingénue gave that character resonance. Amanda, on the other hand, requires the callousness of youth to serve Coward’s darker and comedic ends, and despite the fact that Cattrall is stunning in Rob Howell’s costumes, her Amanda becomes ridiculous — and not in a good way.
Paul Gross, on the other hand, carries off Elyot very well. He’s no kid either, which does hamper the performance somewhat, and his over-dyed hair makes him seem like a man also trying a little hard trying to hold onto youth, but he has a real facility with the language that evidently doesn’t come as easily to Cattrall.
The other characters — Victor, who is married to Amanda at the outset, and Sybil, married to Elyot — are largely plot devices. They stand for the conventions that Elyot and Amanda discard. Played by Simon Paisley Day and Anna Maddeley, these characters serve their purpose well, particularly in their final scene, where they, too, abandon all hope of convention for the inexorable hell of male-female relationship.
With the memory of many scintillating productions of this play burned in my memory –– most notably Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan in 2002 –– this particular production can’t help but disappoint. The play still stands up –– in fact, taking on new poignancy from the increased debate about our right to marry –– but the fireworks never ignite fully. That’s a missed opportunity.
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