Peter D. Kramer

Ex and the city

In Reviews on November 18, 2011 at 7:49 am

There’s a moment, about 20 minutes into Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” — which opened at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre last night — when Kim Cattrall (best known as the sexpot Samantha in “Sex and the City”) proves that she’s right where she belongs.

It doesn’t come with a steamy sex scene.

It’s not about suggestive dialogue.

It’s a simple twist of the head and a flash of wide-eyed recognition.

Her character, Amanda, is on her honeymoon in Deauville, France, and has just realized that her ex-husband, Elyot (the Canadian star Paul Gross), is also on his honeymoon, in the adjoining room, and is standing on the adjoining balcony 30 feet away.

Oops.

Coward’s “Private Lives” is one of his best works, with tempestuous and easily miffed lovers and acid-tongued putdowns. In the capable hands of director Richard Eyre, there’s also plenty of physical comedy, for which Gross and Cattrall are well-suited.

Cattrall has been allowed to grow into Amanda, winning raves for this portrayal in the West End in 2010. It then moved to Toronto before arriving on Broadway. That journey has deepened the actress’ awareness of the character, sharpened her already considerable comic timing and strengthened her British accent, which is clipped and delicious.

Gross is a perfect foil, one of Canada’s top actors who will for some forever be Geoffrey Tennant, the director who sees ghosts in the wonderful Canadian TV series “Slings and Arrows.” He has a touch of Colin Furth, perhaps a Clooney twinkle in his eye and a swagger that might remind some of Gable. He also has fine comic timing, an essential here, and is able to blow his top at any moment, also essential.

The battling lovers were married three years and have been divorced for five, but after that telling moment of recognition, they soon fall for each other again and set off on a whirlwind escape from their freshly minted new marriages. There’s a dual quality at work here: “Private Lives” is by turns loopy and sophisticated, with plenty to say about choices we make and the nature of love.

Rob Howell’s set goes from understated — a rather drab two-story louvered exterior with a simple balcony rail —- to the over-the-top, Amanda’s Art Deco Paris flat that looks like something Busby Berkeley dreamed up after an all-night bender, with an oversized fish-tank and all sorts of rounded edges, and beds of all shapes and sizes strewn about. Howell also did the costumes, which give the proceedings class and style, even if the characters wearing them can be infantile at times.

Cattrall is best when she lets go, as in a playful scene late in the action when Amanda is trying to annoy Elyot and she blares the music and dances wildly around the room. She moves feather-light around the room, in a moment that is as fun to watch as it is unforgettable.

Simon Paisley Day (Amanda’s new husband, Victor) and Anna Madeley (Elyot’s new bride, Sybil) don’t have a lot to work with, here. The private lives we’ve come to see are not their private lives. And Caroline Lena Olsson is genuine as the put-upon French maid.

We love to see lovers battle, don’t we? And Coward’s dialogue is filled with all manner of daggers. These are fiery, petty, overly dramatic and selfish folks behaving abominably to each other and those around them.

And the laughs ring down.

“Chance rules my life,” Amanda declares.

If you have a chance, get to the Music Box for “Private Lives,” which runs in limited engagement through Feb. 5. You won’t be disappointed.

“Private Lives,” Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., Manhattan. http://www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200.
$121.50 and $66.50 at all performances except Wednesday matinee when they are $121.50 and $46.50.

First and third photos by Cylla von Tiedemann; second photo by Nobby Clark.

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