Noel Coward’s comedy of coincidence, Private Lives, is nowhere near as discreet as its title may suggest. Rather than a delicate exploration of interior battles, this frothy, frivolous play is likely to incite much laughter but less likely to crawl under one’s skin for longer than a split second.
From the word go, mismatched lovers are de rigueur. You see, Elyot (Paul Gross) and Amanda (Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall) used to be married (they divorced five years ago), but now they find themselves in adjacent hotel rooms in Deuville, France – both of them entirely too conveniently honeymooning with brand new spouses.
It’s a fun set-up for sure if wholly implausible. But Coward’s plays are rarely steeped in a strict sense of realism. His primary pleasure is like that of champagne – a bubbly, comedic lightness that, with the right cast and director, make for comic gold.
Coward, however, does have his weaknesses as a dramatist. Despite a mastery of set-ups and one-liners, his brand of comedy has not aged particularly well. In an age where comedy is primarily situational (mostly happily so), his plays retain a witty, language-based flippancy that oftentimes keeps contemporary productions from feeling entirely alive. It takes hard work to make Coward’s words pop effortlessly, as a testament to his skill (and his throwback appeal) but also to his limitations.
As directed here by Richard Eyre, our two central pairs of lovers never feel quite at home onstage despite obvious chemistry. Though Paul Gross is thoroughly winning as Elyot, he and Kim Cattrall (also in fine form) seem directed for maximum speed and wit rather than in the service of the play’s subtler moments, which come often enough.
As Victor and Sybil, the new spouses, Simon Paisley Day and Anna Madeley (a fixture on the British scene, deservedly so), give excellent supporting performances within the framework of the production. In fact, all of the play’s actors (Caroline Lena Olsson is perfectly fine as Louise, the maid) are suitably cast, but something seems rushed, even a bit robotic, as if the production’s laughs were choreographed with an egg timer instead of allowed to bubble forth on their own. Eyre, typically a fine director, would do well to encourage his cast to find a certain looseness that’s lacking here.
As the play’s second half begins, we find ourselves in Amanda’s apartment in Paris – where Elyot and Amanda have stolen away after deciding their initial split may have been unwise. It’s during this scene, when Amanda and Elyot are allowed to be alone, that this production hits its stride. Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross seem wonderfully at ease, their chemistry particularly sexy even as they find themselves once again facing their new spouses in the play’s final (hilarious) scene.
Rob Howell’s suitably over-the-top (if occasionally unattractively garish) sets certainly land points for opulence (watch out for that fish bowl!), but nothing onstage – including the scenery – seems, ultimately, quite real. There are situations we as audience members can pick out as being truthful or recognizable, but there’s no room here to breathe and no effort to imbue Coward’s script with anything that even comes close to skimming the darker undercurrents just below the surface of this fabulous, flawed play.