Richard Eyre's revival of Private Lives was a smash in Toronto earlier this fall, breaking box-office records for a non-musical play at the Royal Alexandra theatre. It must have been my three-star review that sent them flocking. Unless it had something to do with the presence of Sex and the City's Kim Cattrall and some fellow named Paul Gross in the lead roles of Amanda and Elyot …
Last night, after a couple of weeks of previews, this production re-opened on Broadway at the 989-seat Music Box. What do the New York critics think of Noël Coward chock full of Canucks?
Many have long memories (and, apparently, job security) and so compared this production to one directed by Howard Davies on Broadway nine years ago. New York Times critic Ben Brantley writes that Eyre's production "doesn’t dig as deep", a conclusion that seems fairly wide-spread.
But what of the stars born and/or raised north of the 49th parallel? Well, the critics are divided: Some love Gross, but not Cattrall; for others, it's vice versa.
Overall, I'd say Gross has a slight edge. While Brantley compliments Cattrall as a "a skillfully pliable actress", he calls the former Due South star "excellent" and compares him to Cary Grant. He "has a Dudley Do-Right handsomeness and solidity that could so easily register as bland leading man. But he inflects his masculine presence (as Cary Grant did so marvelously) with an edge of hysteria, of florid exasperation with a world that doesn’t march to his drumbeat."
New York magazine's Scott Brown concurs: "Gross is the evening’s highlight, with his flawless lacquer of disdain broken only by eruptions of mania".
In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout compares and contrasts the Canadians similarly. "Ms. Cattrall lacks the silken lightness of touch necessary to play Amanda convincingly," he writes. "Paul Gross, her Elyot, has it in abundance, which is why he gets most of the laughs. Not only does he know how to flick off his lines with sly casualness, but he does it without imitating Coward's style of acting, which makes his performance all the more effective." (He adds that Gross "really doesn't look his age".)
There are those who see things the other way, however. In Time Out, David Cote is the yin to Teachout's yang, writing: "Although Cattrall exudes the right sort of self-satisfied friskiness, Gross unwisely imbues Elyot with an emotionally violent temper, and he tends to vocally trample over Coward’s filigree repartee."
In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli also favours Cattrall ("the single best thing in the humdrum new revival") over Gross ("dashing but one-note").
Ultimately, on Broadway, as in Toronto's commercial sector, it doesn't really matter all that much what the critics think. Will New York audiences embrace the show?
An anecdote in Brown's review suggests to me that they're pretty much on the same wavelength down there. "[The actress who plays Sybil]Anna Madeley's… big-eyed, blonde-bombshell entrance set off star-recognition applause intended for Cattrall on the night I attended," writes Brown. That's exactly what happened up here in Toronto when I saw it.
As long as New York audiences will applaud stars – and people who vaguely look like stars – just for showing up, I have no fears for Private Lives' box-office success.