Callow, Coward, Cops

For Private Lives, though, these are all peripheral matters, easily waved away if the two leading actors can entangle us in the fun of watching Elyot and Amanda fall back into their traumatically bipolar relationship, and then hilariously claw their way out again. Davies, whose previous Broadway productions have ranged in quality from mediocrity to humiliating disaster, is near the high end of his dismal spectrum here. The pacing is sometimes languid to the point of somnambulism, and the spatting has had most of its fun removed. His notion of what Elyot should sing to Amanda during their romantic idyll is "If Love Were All," the wistful credo of a cabaret artist who's given up hope of settling down—maybe not the best choice for crooning to someone with whom you've just restarted an old love affair.

But even Davies's dull hand could be sloughed off with lead actors of sufficient sparkle, and here Private Lives scores in the 70 to 75 percent range, not bad as contemporary Coward revivals go. Lindsay Duncan, who can apparently do nothing false onstage, is always on the mark, whether Amanda's vulnerably perplexed, tart and brittle, or lying with wide-eyed ease. Alan Rickman, opposite her, can at least always appear to be equally true. If he doesn't always convince (watch his eyes when he declares his love in Act I), he compensates with a fuller sense of fun than Duncan, catching the role's many instant put-ons and riding them gleefully. The only trouble is that they're in different productions. Amanda and Elyot love each other, but they also can't stand each other; that's the central, fundamentally tragic, joke on which the action hinges. But Duncan's Amanda and Rickman's Elyot never add up to a couple: Nuzzling on a couch, they seem every bit as incompatible as when they're flinging pillows and lamps at each other. Whatever the explanation, the fizz is lacking. They might borrow some of Callow's excess, but it would probably evanesce on its way over from the Belasco.


Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman in Private Lives: the height of cheek-to-cheek
photo: Joan Marcus
Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman in Private Lives: the height of cheek-to-cheek

Details

The Mystery of Charles Dickens
By Peter Ackroyd
Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street
212-239-6200

Private Lives
By NoŽl Coward
Richard Rodgers Theatre
Broadway and 46th Street
212-307-4100

Blue Surge
By Rebecca Gilman
Joseph Papp Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212-239-6200

Let's end with a good American joke. You hear the one about the cop and the hooker? It seems that while he was entrapping her in the massage parlor, they found out the high schools they went to were big athletic rivals. So he says, "Your team always kicked our ass," and she, not to be outdone, replies, "Yeah, but our cheerleaders were cows." I know it's not funny, but if you believe it, you might believe the rest of Rebecca Gilman's Blue Surge, and that would be funny, since it has more contrivances and improbabilities per square inch than any six Dickens novels. Gilman means to explore something interesting about sex and social class, and the ways people can and can't help each other, but she insists on using weirdness for characterization, and patness for every dramatic climax. It's not enough for her cop to be a low-income kid who resents his girlfriend's affluence; he has to have had a grave robber for a father, and a mother who was bedridden but kept five dogs. While the arcana weaken the play's common sense, the plot—two teamed cops both fall for whores they're busting—makes it seem cheap and glib. A pity, because Gilman's Boy Gets Girl was admirable precisely for its unfussy straightforwardness in using both the improbabilities life throws at us and the taut structure of a suspense thriller. Heightening the frustration, Robert Falls's production of Blue Surge, cast mainly with Chicago imports, is clean, unforced, and near-perfect in its acting. Joe Murphy as the tormented flatfoot and Colleen Werthmann as the more party-loving prostitute are especially effective.

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