“There are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, although recent years have provided a number of exceptions. Figures as varied as Al Gore (former V.P. and failed presidential candidate, now international environmentalist icon), Steve Jobs (Apple founder, then Apple exile, then Apple savior) and Rosie O’Donnell (interrupting her sporadic career as a bubbly daytime TV host with bouts of angry activism) all demonstrate why the obsessives who update Wikipedia biographies get so little sleep.
And while an actor would love to get a regular part on a beloved, long-running TV series, it is a mixed blessing: with fame and financial security comes the straightjacket of being trapped in a specific character in the public’s mind. While Kramer, Niles and Phoebe may now exist only in reruns, they cast long shadows on the careers of Michael Richards, David Hyde Peirce and Lisa Kudrow.
It’s probably why Sarah Jessica Parker, who had an interesting if not A-list movie career as a young character actress prior to ‘Sex and the City’, has had a difficult time since taking off her Carrie Bradshaw shoes. In her latest film ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ she played a financial advisor who was also a mother, two positions very difficult to imagine Sarah Jessica/Carrie filling.
But, as the giant ‘Sex and the City’ nerd that I am, I only want the best for those ladies. So when I first spotted the fabulously art deco posters for a revival of Noël Coward’s ‘Private Lives’ starring Kim Cattrall (alongside ‘Due South’s Paul Gross), I felt it my duty to attend.
I should admit, though, that, unlike a lot of gay boys out there, Cattrall’s Samantha was never my favourite. I related to Carrie’s romantic yearning and idealism about how life should be (as well as her occasional incoherent incompetence) and cheered on Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda as she provided the show’s feminist voice and demonstrated that beneath toughness can be insecurity. But the cartooniness of Samantha (her porno situations, her over-acted orgasms, the garishly bright colours of her outfits) seemed to personify the worst things people thought about the show.
But my Mother (yes, my Mom and I stay up late watching old ‘Sex and the City’ episodes together), noted an occasional softness in Cattrall’s performance. As the oldest character she suggested a wisdom and far-sightedness the other ladies’ in-the-moment reactions lacked.
When I bought tickets to ‘Private Lives’ for the two of us online, my Mom made me paranoid that Cattrall might sit out some performances. While I understand that every actor needs an understudy and that ‘the show must go on’, as the date of the performance drew nearer, I feared that little piece of paper stuck in the program which would inform us that “Sitting in for Ms. Cattrall…”
There’s the paradox of it: while I support Kim Cattrall moving on with her career and playing different parts, I, like many people at the theatre, bought tickets because I was familiar with her from TV. She could win the Nobel Peace Prize and in the first paragraph of the news story would be the sentence, “best known for her role as Samantha Jones on ‘Sex and the City’…”
The rain was pouring down as people crowded under the illuminated marquee of the Royal Alexander theatre. As we stood in the lobby, Mom in a scarf and me in a bow tie (my nod to the fashions of the 1930’s), we flipped though our programs.
“Oh no,” Mom said, discovering a little slip of white paper.
“At this performance,” it read, “due to the indisposition of Paul Gross the role of Elyot will be performed by Gareth Clarke.”
I audibly sighed. “Thank goodness it was just him,” I said.
“I’m disappointed,” my Mom said. “I wanted to see Paul Gross.”
The play itself is a painfully witty and sophisticated concoction, at once as classic and of its time as a 1930’s martini glass. It begins on a luxurious hotel terrace in Deauville, France. Two couples are celebrating their honeymoons next door to each other. The audience learns that the wife of one pair, Amanda (Cattrall), and the husband of the other, Elyot (not Paul Gross), were not only both married before, but married to each other. When they discover one another what follows is one of the funniest exchanges of awkwardness and mounting anger ever put on the stage, and it reminds one how much sitcoms owe to their drawing room comedy forebears.
Most of the past revivals of ‘Private Lives’ have stuck to the dry, deadpan delivery of Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward in the original production. (Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery even based their performances for the 1931 film version on a recording of that show.)
Cattrall delivers her lines both broader and more realistically, speeding up when she’s upset and occasionally dropping into a demonic shriek when muttering something nasty. Her voice, which sometimes sounded stagey on ‘Sex and the City’, fits nicely with a British accent. (Cattrall was born in England, but grew up in British Columbia.)
It must be noted that Cattrall, who’s playing a part she’s twenty years older than, looks beautiful and incredibly youthful on stage. Although she spends much of the play in dressing gowns, when she steps out in a bias-cut gold evening column, you could almost hear the audience gasp.
And since we’ve admitted and accepted that Kim Cattrall will never fully escape Samantha Jones, what is it like to hear Coward’s sophisticated lines (“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”) coming from the mouth which once declared, “My boyfriend has the funkiest-tasting spunk”?
With Cattrall in the role, we can better see Elyot and Amanda for their modern hedonism, contrasting with the boring traditionalism of their new spouses. Elyot has a speech defending treating life “flippantly”, which could almost be a founding manifesto of Camp, and Amanda keeps up with her desires to be “wild”. Dare I even suggest that there are some proto-Samantha lines, such as when Elyot claims it’s natural for women to have less affairs and Amanda shoots back, “It’s useful for men for women to have less affairs!”
As they took their bows, Cattrall grabbed Clarke’s hand and allowed the cast and audience to give him a special round of applause, to which he humbly nodded. As a survivor of stage and screen, she knows that, as difficult as it is to be in the shadow of a TV character, for an understudy to emerge from the shadow of the absent star is even harder.