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Review - Blood and Gifts & Private Lives

In The Book of Mormon, the young Ugandan ingénue sings of a fantasy world she imagines where all the warlords are friendly. And while in J.T. Rogers' intriguing drama of 1980s American foreign policy, Blood and Gifts, Afghan warlord Abdullah Kahn isn't exactly depicted as a saint, the author paints him as a man deeply dedicated to his family and the culture of his people who, like a typical American father, has job-related headaches (trying to secure weapons to defend his soil against the Soviets) and can't understand the music his son listens to (Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" and Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do with It"). As played by Bernard White, he is a humble and patriotic man of dignity.

And he's one of several sharply drawn characters CIA operative Jim Warnock (impossibly square-jawed and emotionally guarded Jeremy Davidson) deals with in his mission to secretly provide American arms to Afghan freedom fighters via a Pakistani Colonel (Gabriel Ruiz) at Inter-Services Intelligence without making it seem to the public back home that the government is putting weapons in the hands of unorganized rebels. There's Michael Aronov as a gregarious Russian spy with whom he cautiously shares an occupational camaraderie, Jefferson Mays as a beleaguered and somewhat neurotic British envoy and Pej Vahdat as a menacing Afghan with a soft spot for western women and pop culture.

It's a sprawling story that covers ten years and several locales and languages, but director Bartlett Sher neatly fits it into Lincoln Center's intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Set designer Michael Yeargan places benches at the perimeters of the thrust stage where actors not involved in scenes are seated in character, helping the audience to follow the complicated chess match of a plot by allowing those in scenes to subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) make physical references to those they're talking about.

Given the subject matter and the audience's knowledge of what's eventually going to happen in Afghanistan once the events of the play are over, Blood and Gifts is surprisingly funny and entertaining, looking at the situation with a sardonic tone that doesn't undercut the drama. With terrific performances by its 14-member ensemble, the swift and engrossing production emphasizes how everyone involved seems fully aware that they're in an impossible situation and the best they can hope for is to be in the best position to deflect blame away when it eventually all falls apart.

Photo of Bernard White, Andrew Weems, Pej Vahdat, Andres Munar J. Paul Nicholas and Jeremy Davidson by T. Charles Erickson.

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Though no one removes a stitch and the lovers are generally more talk than action, Noel Coward's Private Lives gets my vote as the English language's sexiest play. Its leading pair, Amanda and Elyot are each terribly rich, terribly clever and terribly competitive when it comes to being the controlling force in their relationship. What sets their sparks of incompatible irresistibility is that each sports an independent nature that abhors compromise, but they are nevertheless thrilled by each other's indomitability; even when it crosses into mutual bouts of (relatively minor) physical violence. (Disclaimer: By no means am I saying violence is sexy when it exits the realm of mutual satisfaction.)

Having been divorced from each other for five years, Coward has the pair reunited by chance while each is honeymooning in Deauville with a new spouse. But while Amanda's Victor and Elyot's Sybil have delusions of being in an equal partnership, neither is anything near a match, and they're abandoned when the hedonistic heroes skedaddle for a Parisian flat.

Unfortunately, director Richard Eyre's rather perfunctory mounting of the piece captures only the surface pleasures of Coward's wit and barely registers any sexual excitement. It's a marvelously strong play and those experiencing it for the first time should find enough for an enjoyable evening, but, especially for those with memories of the elegantly steamy perfection that was the Howard Davies-directed vehicle for Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan that hit town in 2002, this is not at all a fair representation of what Private Lives has to offer

Paul Gross, the best thing about this production, seems perfectly suited for Elyot. His casual charm and deadpan drollness lets out the playwright's musicality of language with understated ease ("Don't quibble, Sybil."), and those tricky moments when the character expresses violent tendencies ("Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.") come off lightly as fetishy play.

Gross could likely grow deeper into the role if he had a stronger co-star to play off, but Kim Cattrall's Amanda comes off as unsuitably as the product of a rural high-schooler trying her darndest to "act sophisticated." Her high-pitched voice, which frequently tends to shriek, pushes her lines out with little dexterity, nuance or humor. She might as well be playing Sybil, who the playwright himself described as a puppet rather than a character. Anna Madeley does about as much as one can expect with the bubble-headed, straight line spouting part while Simon Paisley Day has a nice go at making Victor an over-stuffed shirt. It's disappointing that the director decided not to attempt anything comical with the small role of the maid, which is played rather simply by Caroline Lena Olsson.

While designer Bob Howell's twin balcony set for the first act is merely unattractive, the hideous aquatic-themed décor for Amanda and Elyot's overly spacious love nest is a tacky eyesore. And when a sight gag is added involving a fish bowl that has sprung a leak, it becomes all too obvious that this production has divorced itself from all that makes Private Lives a ravishing comedy of fatalistic passion.

Photo of Paul Gross and Kim Cattrall by Cylla von Tiedemann

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"Because of Mozart, it's all over after the age of seven."
-- Wendy Wasserstein

The grosses are out for the week ending 11/27/2011 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: MARY POPPINS (28.4%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (27.6%), CHICAGO (22.6%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (19.3%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (15.4%), MAMMA MIA! (14.8%), THE ADDAMS FAMILY (10.8%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (8.6%), CHINGLISH (8.4%), MEMPHIS (8.2%), WICKED (8.0%), LYSISTRATA JONES (7.1%), JERSEY BOYS (2.8%), ANYTHING GOES (1.8%), THE LION KING (1.6%), WAR HORSE (0.7%), BONNIE AND CLYDE (0.3%), Hugh Jackman, BACK ON BROADWAY (0.1%),

Down for the week was: GODSPELL (-19.2%), PRIVATE LIVES (-13.8%), ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (-13.5%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (-12.7%), STICK FLY (-9.5%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (-7.5%), RELATIVELY SPEAKING (-7.5%), MAN AND BOY (-6.8%), FOLLIES (-5.5%), SISTER ACT (-5.4%), AN EVENING WITH Patti LuPone AND Mandy Patinkin (-4.8%), SEMINAR (-3.4%), ROCK OF AGES (-0.7%), THE MOUNTAINTOP (-0.7%),

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