PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Private Lives — Keeping Up with the Chases
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the opening of Broadway's new production of Private Lives starring Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross.
Samantha, Amanda. Amanda, Samantha.
Leave it to Noel Coward to introduce that proud and lusty wanton of television's "Sex of the City," Samantha Jones, to his own manipulative, self-satisfying mantrap, Amanda Chase Prynne. The two came together Nov. 17 at the Music Box in the form of Kim Cattrall for the eighth (!) Broadway outing of Private Lives.
One more life on The Great White Way, and the play will be sprouting cat claws. As it is, Cattrall does quite nicely with what she's got, which is a pronounced TV-made reputation for brazen sensuality. Director Richard Eyre sandpapers that down to fit snugly, smoothly into Coward's civilized sort of drawing-room comedy.
The Prynne part of Amanda's name is newly minted — in fact, awaiting consummation as the curtain rises on a posh Deauville hotel. The glasses of bubbly have been poured and placed on the balcony table when Amanda hears love's old refrain — "Someday I'll Find You," Coward's evergreen (and, in this context, a wicked little joke) — wafting across from the adjacent balcony, from the very mouth of Husband Number One, Elyot Chase, who himself is about to pounce into a honeymoon.
Coward-contrived coincidence can be so inconvenient. Of course, after five years of down time, the old sparks start flying back and forth like a remembered passion. It seems, once burned, both have opted for tepid low-flames the second time around — priggish, frilly Sybil and stolid, pipe-smoking Victor. Rather than explain their rekindled love, Elyot and Amanda high-tail it for her flat in Paris, leaving their brand-new spouses in the dust, wondering "what happened?"
It's quite a layout, Amanda's pad in Paris where Acts II and III are played. Rob Howell has envisioned it as a spacious aqua-tank, replete with a goldfish bowl, a porthole that opens and closes and schools of sea life swimming on the walls. (Private Lives invites outlandish visuals. You may recall Tim Hatley won a Tony nine years for reimagining the Act I hotel where Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan resided as a wedding cake that spiraled upward.)
Domestic donnybrooks occupy the final two-thirds of the play, lapsing into tag-team matches when the parties left behind enter the fray. An emergency French maid is brought in to mop up and makes entrances at all the wrong times, oblivious to the billowing chaos. Eventually, true love finds its way out of the shambles.
A general level of merriment followed the first-nighters a block and a half east to the after-party site, Bond 45 — and made the cramped elbow-rubbing at least tolerable.
Cynthia Nixon and Mario Cantone led the "Sex and the City" support-team but skipped the party and let Cattrall bask in the spotlight alone.
The only representative from the most recent (2002) Private Lives was Carolyn McCormick, who "understudied when Lindsay was doing it, and I went on for the French maid for about two weeks." McCormick's husband, Byron Jennings, did Elyot at Seattle Rep, and "we've been asked to do it together, but, unfortunately, we've never done it. It never worked out with our schedules."
Other vested interests included a cluster of Noel Coward Society/Foundation officials and fans (among them, Barry Day, Ken Starrett and Alan Pally) — plus Disney Theatrical's Thomas Schumacher, whose Newsies is Broadway-bound March 29, Heather Lindell, director Frank Dunlop, columnist Liz Smith and archaeologist Iris Love, singer-lyricist Michael Stipe, Isabel Fonseca, Knopf kingpin Sonny Mehta and wife Gita, People magazine's Stephen M. Silverman, MOMA's current curator at large Klaus Biesenback and Steaming's still-steaming Linda Thorson.
Of the current five-member cast, only two have been on Broadway before — albeit, once before — and the chaste Mrs. Chase (Anna Madeley) was there longer than the divorced Mrs. Chase (Cattrall), having put in 78 performances as Matthew Broderick's fiancée in 2009's The Philanthropist vs. the fast 28 Cattrall did at the start of her career in Ian McKellen's 1986 Wild Honey.
Madeley, who claims British and Canadian allegiance but lives in the U.K., is quite content sharing the lower-billing berth with Simon Paisley Day's Victor, the show's other also-ran. "Noel Coward called them puppets — pins that keep getting knocked down and keep getting back up," she said of the show's new bride and groom, "but Richard, directing, helped us find a lot of fun between Sybil and Victor."
A Broadway debut is something to write home about, and that's precisely what Day did: "I wrote an email to my old parents today to say, 'This is about as good as it gets, and I wouldn't be here without you.' They are back in Kent in England. They're both quite disabled. They came and saw the original show in Bath in their wheelchairs. They sat in the front row and slept through half of it, but at least they saw this production so I know that they'll be thrilled to be here in spirit tonight."
Physically present were his children and his wife, Delta Paisley. To avoid confusion with another Simon Day, he did the very un-Victor-like thing of taking his wife's maiden name for his middle name. "I thought it a modern-man sort of thing to do. My children are both Paisley-Days, so it's nice to be on the same page. Know what? They're hyphenated, and I'm not hyphenated, but it's nice to be different."
As the maid Louisa, who keeps her head down and doesn't involve herself with the comic chaos around her, Caroline Lena Olsson has the distinction of making her Broadway bow completely en francais, and in the third act. "I love doing it in French," she admitted, "but I never know how many people can understand me. Hopefully, they get what I'm doing. I'm there to enhance the turmoil going on."
This production happens to be the first time director Eyre has had a go at Coward, let alone Private Lives. "I'd seen it a bunch of times, and I thought, 'Well, if I'm going to do the play, I don't want to do it as I've seen it done before.' I simply thought, 'Look, this is a play that I've got to bring alive for the second decade of the 21st century, so I don't want it to be like an imitation of other productions. I don't want be like Noel Coward's reverential guardian.' I adore the play, and I have a great respect for the play, but I don't think that it needs to be austerely reverential."
Next on Eyre's agenda was to have been a stage adaptation (by Jon Robin Baitz) of movie producer Robert Evans' two books of memoirs, "The Kid Stays in the Picture" and its sequel, "The Fat Lady Sings," but the project has been canceled. "I had a great time working with Robbie on it, but the producer decided in the end he didn't want to go ahead with it. So there we are." Instead "is a film for the BBC of Shakespeare's Henry IV: Part I and II. I'm shooting it in the spring, and I guess it will be on here maybe next fall on PBS." For stars, he has Jeremy Irons, Simon Russell Beale and Julie Walters.
"I thought it went great," said Paul Gross of his first official night on Broadway. "It was a lot of fun to do. I don't ever really get nervous, and I wasn't tonight either. There's certainly a lot of hoopla around it, but it's like Freemasonry, the theatre. Once we get into that beautiful place in the Music Box, we could be anywhere in the world. I know I'm on Broadway, but, when you're in a theatre . . ."
As the Elyot of the evening, the Canadian charmer of "Due South" and "Slings and Arrows" breezed through the performance like an old practiced hand at Coward.
"I don't know if there's a style as much as there's a tune and a tempo. You have to discover that. Once you feel Coward's tune and tempo and get in on top of it, it can become effortless. It carries you along. I've found whenever I've gone off it or slowed down or tried to make a meal out of things, it sorta collapses and is hard to get back up again so if you just listen to the writer, you're in fairly good shape."
As if a Broadway debut wasn't worry enough, Gross had to contend with the last Broadway Elyot directly across the street, Alan Rickman, who got a Tony nomination for it playing opposite the Tony-winning Amanda of Lindsay Duncan.
"Well, I would believe this is so different, I can't imagine what he would think," Gross confessed. "I haven't actually met him, but there was a note to everyone from their company to wish us all luck for tonight." Note-comparing will come later.
"Ah, but it's funny with these parts that lots and lots of people have played. I remember doing Hamlet, and, if you actually started to worry about all the people who have done Hamlet, you wouldn't walk out for the first speech at the beginning.
"I think it's very similar with Elyot in this play, and, of course, in the end, Alan Rickman does what he does and I do what I do and Richard Burton did what he did. You can't do that. You can only do whatever it is you're about."
As it happened, the night Private Lives opened was the first night Rickman ever missed a performance in his life (a respiratory problem). His Seminar, at the John Golden Theatre, is the next play to lift off on Broadway — on Nov. 20.
A potentially intimidating presence did attend the Private Lives opening — the Tony-winning Amanda of 1970, Tammy Grimes. Cattrall, mercifully, wasn't told she was in the audience but rushed up to her at the party, thrilled that she was there, and was warmly embraced for her performance.
Grimes also won a Tony for The Unsinkable Molly Brown, but it was Amanda she named her daughter (by Christopher Plummer) after, and her on-stage fencing with Brian Bedford's Elyot is a cherished memory.
"It was a wonderful experience tonight," Grimes said. "I couldn't help but think of Brian. I kept hearing his lines, but the man doing them — Paul Gross — was marvelous."
Gross, quite the gentleman, hovered attentively over her booth at the party. "She and Paul talked back and forth about the musicality of the language," reported Grimes' cabaret director, Joel Vig, "how you find the rhythm as it's written because it's been honed down to almost like musical scoring. There were no 'wells' and 'buts' with Noel — any of those kinds of things that actors do as a way of adding their own kind of emphasis. Those were always stricken by him. She told Paul that Noel liked to have the lines done exactly as written, and that was how he did them."
Having done a Present Laughter years before, Cattrall was aware of the precision Coward required, but initially he wasn't an option. "When I was put together with Richard Eyre by [producer] Sonia Friedman, we were to do a very dark Ibsen play called Ghosts — but, at the last minute, there was another production so we decided to do something completely different — this comedy by Noel Coward.
"I felt very well prepared to do this because of my years in 'Sex and the City,' which, in its own way, is about relationships and crazy excessiveness and loving or hating somebody — all those things that Coward was writing about so brilliantly. Tammy was saying, and I agree with her, 'This is a perfect play — perfectly pitched, if you do it right.' And I loved that Richard didn't have preconceived ideas of what it was, other than he wanted them to be heterosexual — not a gay man and a straight woman. And it kinda happened through the people that he cast and the atmosphere that he allowed us to have in the rehearsal room — very relaxed, very open. All ideas were welcomed. And slowly but surely we constructed our own version of this, which does homage to other productions but also, in its own way, is fresh."
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