Noël would have loved her. Coward, that is — whose perfect comedy, Private Lives, opens this month at the Music Box Theatre — would have loved the beautiful, charismatic Kim Cattrall, who is playing half of the most intriguing and infuriating couple ever to set foot on a West End or Broadway stage.
The other half, the role Noël wrote for himself, is, in director Sir Richard Eyre's production, played by Paul Gross, a Canadian actor whom Eyre, no mean judge of actors, declares to be "witty, very attractive and fantastically good in the part." Cattrall is also blissfully happy with her new Elyot. "Paul is my contemporary. We've had similar life experiences," she says, "and he's a great dancer. He's Cary Grant to my Carole Lombard."
Private Lives, like all the major Coward comedies, is about the inability of men and women to live with or without one another, and of all his couples, Amanda and Elyot are the best mismatch, the most perfectly realized of all his quarreling pairs of star-crossed lovers. We love them. More importantly, they love each other — not with their brains or hearts but with the overpowering, unstoppable force of sexual obsession. Five years after their divorce they meet by accident on adjoining balconies of a luxury hotel in the south of France, where they are both on honeymoon with their new spouses, and inevitably, the spark reignites.
"This is one of the very few plays that's actually about sexual attraction and the dynamics of sex in a romantic relationship," says Eyre, when asked why he wanted to direct Private Lives, never having tackled Coward before. "It's always struck me that in this play Noël Coward is like a war correspondent, a spectator watching his heterosexual friends and how their sexual wars play out."
The moment we see Amanda (Kim Cattrall) wrapped in a white towel, blonde curls flying, we know she's too much woman for Victor (Simon Paisley Day), the stiff new husband she has acquired. Elyot's bride, Sybil (Anna Madeley), meanwhile, is far too prim and conventional ever to hold onto a man like Elyot. (By the way, she got her name because Coward couldn't resist the line, "Don't quibble, Sybil.")
"It's the original rom-com, hilariously funny and brilliantly written," says Cattrall. "It's a gift for me, allowing me to show so much: verbal comedy, physical comedy, even a fight scene and the foxtrot. I love the zaniness of it."