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."
Noël had promised to write a play for his childhood friend Gertrude Lawrence, the biggest transatlantic star of her time. Indeed, he wrote the operetta Bitter Sweet with her in mind, only realizing after he had completed it that Gertie's voice, while sweet, was only intermittently tuneful and couldn't possibly cope with the demands of the music he had composed for it. She was furious when the role went to Peggy Wood and insisted that he immediately write one for her. Partly to get away from her incessant queries, Noël went on one of his tramp steamer vacations to the Far East, all the while searching for a framework for a play that would suit Gertie and himself. Nothing occurred to him, but while traveling in Vietnam he caught the flu and took to his bed in a Tokyo hotel, feverish and sleepless. "The moment I switched out the lights," he later wrote, "Gertie appeared in a white Molyneux dress on a terrace in the south of France and refused to go away until four in the morning, by which time Private Lives, title and all, had constructed itself." Eyre never had a moment's hesitation in casting Cattrall, for whom he has great affection and respect: "I had seen Kim onstage and knew she was very bright." He adds, with a chuckle, "I love working with her. She's good fun."
She loves him, too. "Of course, having Richard as your director makes it all possible," she says. "He pushes you to think a little further, and he's incredibly open."
And now she is having just as big a success with Private Lives as Gertie had with Noël at the premiere in 1930, with spectacular reviews from London and Toronto critics and standing ovations from her audiences. "At this stage in my career," she says, "it's such a gift to play a powerful woman so beautifully conceived and constructed by Noël Coward, with a heart and a mind as well as a body, and make her my own."
Coward's plays always work, I suggest to Eyre. "Not always," he counters. "They need careful handling from director and actors. They have to be very carefully calibrated. They don't run by themselves." Cattrall agrees: "It's so precise. It's like chamber music. You have to be so much in sync with one another and get it right every time. Each night you walk a tightrope in a way that doesn't exist in today's plays. Every performance you're never sure whether it's going to work tonight. It's like a tennis match where Noël Coward has written parts for two champions. The shots vary — a backhand, a forehand, a volley — but the competition is always there. I think that's just good writing. A brilliant mind at work, whether it's Mamet or Molière or Shakespeare, makes audiences reflect on their own lives."
If Eyre's concept of Amanda is all woman, his Elyot, unlike Coward's, is all man — and, like most men, what's on his mind is not the moonlight or the Duke of Westminster's yacht.
"It's such good writing," says Cattrall, "all about how relationships really work, how you're always on the back foot if you love that much. You can love them and then hate them and then love them again, and then never want to see them again. Audiences recognize themselves in Amanda and Elyot. They understand that, at a certain age, when you've been in enough relationships, you know what's for you. And Amanda knows that Elyot is the man for her, no matter how irritating he might be. It's hilariously funny and a wonderful opportunity for me…"
Cattrall also knew what Amanda should be: "I didn't want her to be cold. I wanted her to have a real heart center to her, and if they fight and quarrel, it's because they love each other. You can only have that when the stakes are that high, when it matters that much."