Noel Coward's Private Lives is a battle of the sexes that, in the solidly entertaining, Broadway-bound production directed by Richard Eyre now playing in Toronto, is also a royal rumble between its two Canadian stars.
On this terrace, looking debonair and smoking an herbal cigarette, is homegrown and largely home-known Paul Gross as Elyot.
On the adjoining one, draped only in a towel, is international champion of cougars Kim Cattrall as Elyot's ex-wife, Amanda.
In the opening, symmetrical act of Coward's 1930 comedy, Elyot and Amanda end up booked into neighbouring suites at a French resort five years after their divorce. Adding to the awkwardness, they are each on their respective second honeymoons.
First up on the stage is Gross's gleefully flippant Elyot, newly married to the younger Sibyl (a whiny but nevertheless winsome Anna Madeley) who is, in his words, "steady and sweet" where Amanda was, presumably, unsteady and sour.
After they exit, Cattrall's feline Amanda enters with her strait-laced, pipe-smoking new husband Victor (Simon Paisley Day), whom she claims to love "much more calmly" than his predecessor. (This is meant as a compliment.)
If we were to measure the pair of performances on an audience applause-o-meter, Cattrall would come out on top. Indeed, certain short-sighted spectators at the Toronto opening were so eager to applaud the Sex and the City star for just showing up that some inadvertently did at the sight of the also-blonde Madeley on her first appearance.
Cattrall – who also played this part on the West End – offers up a smart and self-assured Amanda with a deep purr that gradually develops into a growl. But it takes her some time for her to find her stride; she seems to slightly jump her lines as if she's not entirely listening to her stage partners and her movements are often overly deliberate.
(Eyre makes her – or perhaps allows her to – straddle a chair, then lift her leg over the back; the move certainly showcases the actress's impressive flexibility, but somewhat lessens her character's sophistication.) Contrasting Cattrall's too-rehearsed Amanda, Gross's Elyot is a barely chained wild animal. He rides off madly in all directions – not always hitting precisely the right note, and on occasion hitting a decidedly wrong one, but overall bringing a captivating capriciousness to his performance.
Gross, who hasn't been on a stage since his Hamlet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2000, substitutes a mad masculine energy where we are used to Coward camp in his line readings – and it zings.
Eventually, of course, Amanda and Elyot do emerge from their separate corners. Soon they have ditched their new partners and run off to her apartment in Paris.
Rob Howell's design for this pied-a-terre is a dazzler of swirls and circles and features a particularly inventive fish bowl that, like the play, has three acts. As it should be in Coward's play, sex is everywhere – or, at least, the prospect of it in the form of beds, daybeds and strategically placed piles of cushions.
And yet, despite the evident early chemistry between Cattrall and Gross, in Amanda and Elyot's extended Parisian pas-de-deux the attraction is subdued, tentative and not entirely convincing.
In their verbal tussling, however, there are sparks. Cattrall can be wonderfully petulant, while Gross practically explodes in chauvinist condescension.
The couple's movement from amour fou to domestic violence is a problem that Eyre decides simply to dodge, taking the production to cartoonish territory instead when convenient. When Elyot hits Amanda, he does it with conviction and the audience gasps; when Amanda slaps Elyot in the face, Gross gives the audience a Wile E. Coyote face and his pupils practically do loop-de-loops.
Eyre's production overall exhibits a tendency towards over-the-top funny business, as when the French maid lets out a very fake sneeze onto a pile of breakfast buns.
In that small part, Caroline Lena Olsson gives us some authentic French snootiness, however. Kudos also to Madeley, who manages to make us cringe sympathetically at her predicament while still permitting us to laugh at it, and particularly Paisley Day, whose nerves hilariously disintegrate over the course of the play. While this production features many treats, ultimately it's a scratch on both the stars that the supporting characters are easier to get emotionally invested in than theirs are.
- Written by Noel Coward
- Directed by Richard Eyre
- Starring Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross
- At the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto