The new Broadway production of Noel Coward's Private Lives, about a divorced couple's awkward run-in while both are honeymooning at the same French hotel, is just not quite funny enough. The play has a certain British sensibility to it, with likable and jovial characters at the helm who make light of a strange situation by cracking wise, to the chagrin of their new spouses. Sometimes, these wisecracks land well with the audience, whose laughter serves as a sort of approval and recognition that we understand that the characters -- and story line -- are not intended to be taken very seriously. But it's when the jokes don't land that it exposes the self-centeredness and immaturity of the protagonists and we awaken to how bad these two truly are.
While Kim Cattrall is the big star of this production, it's her counterpart Paul Gross who really steals the spotlight as the lead male, Elyot. Cattrall's Amanda is not pushed easily; nevertheless, thanks to reliable comedic timing and physical comedy, Gross gets in a couple extra laughs and, in turn, gains affection from the crowd that Cattrall misses.
This play works best when all four of the lead characters are forced together into tight and uncomfortable quarters. They bicker and then make up repeatedly, most of the time for good reason. Who knows what might happen when they're all reunited? But when Amanda and Elyot are left to themselves to rekindle their affair, the play drags a bit. It's a long wait in the middle section of the play as we hope for the much-needed, inevitable resolution. As that scene grows on, and with a shortage of laughs to distract us, we wind up forced to examine these characters' morality and decisions as they do. Through that lens, it's hard to justify Elyot's and Amanda's behavior. And it's not the note the play strives for in the early and late scenes.
Or you may wind up questioning other decisions director Richard Eyre made. For instance, Cattrall and Gross both play characters two decades younger than they are, which is hard just to dismiss in the name of blind casting. Their ages show more when it's just the two of them in the room, without Elyot's young wife to make him seem young at heart, and without Amanda's older-looking husband to make her appear youthful. When it's just the two of them alone, they're laid bare. And it's beyond uncomfortable at times; it can be downright unpleasant.