Elizabeth Taylor left a generation of actresses in her debt. No matter who plays the role of Amanda in "Private Lives," it can always be said, "Well, at least she's better than Elizabeth Taylor."
That can certainly be said of Joan Collins. She looks better than her predecessor. She has a better sense of what to wear. And she is at least professional.
Collins has decided to play Amanda with the toughness that is her trademark, and her performance at least has the virtue of consistency.
Mere competence, alas, is not enough for Noel Coward's rich play. Written in 1930 as a vehicle for himself and the lustrous Gertrude Lawrence, dismissed as fluff for many years, "Private Lives" has proved one of Coward's - and the century's - more resilient plays.
Until I saw Taylor and a former husband do it, I always though "Private Lives" was actorproof. I'm afraid no play is, and this one requires better actors than many lesser works. (For this reason, it is curious that the play, which used to be done by brilliant comediennes like Tammy Grimes and Maggie Smith, has now become a vehicle for aging screen stars.)
The reason the play has not dated is that its point of view, if not feasible in "real life," is enormously appealing on stage. It is, in fact, a plea for theatricality as a remedy for the cares of life.
The plot is ridiculously simple. Amanda and her first husband, Elyot, meet unexpectedly on their respective honeymoons with second spouses. Bored with their new mates, they leave them in the lurch and flee to Paris. Elyot asks what they should do if the mates catch up with them. "Behave exquisitely," Amanda tells him.
Life is full of impossible situations. The only way to rise above them is to put a premium, as Amanda and Elyot do (and their new spouses do not), on wit and imagination. This is a gospel that fares better against a backdrop of painted flats than it does on, say, Flatbush Ave.
Nevertheless the spectacle of Amanda and Elyot sparring, then soaring on flights of verbal fancy is endlessly amusing. Collins does best when the humor is mean-spirited, but she does not suggest that Amanda's imagination and spirit are something grander. Arvin Brown's staging simplifies what she did in London, substituting, for example, slapstick gags for a knockabout fight in Act Two.
As Elyot, Simon Jones balances droll aloofness with a virile charm. With a livelier Amanda, the two characters' trampoline act would have had more bounce.
Edward Duke, as Amanda's second husband, has been imported from London. For the most part, his performance is as fine as it was there.
But a bit of silly laughing in Act One comes across as stupid because of his partner. It is a pity that Sarah Crowe, who played Elyot's second wife, was not imported also. She fairly stole the London reviews, and I suspect there was no eagerness for the theft to be repeated. Jill Tasker plays the role as whiny caricature.
Loren Sherman's sets are resplendent, as are William Ivey Long's costumes. Nolan Miller designed a sumptuous gown for Collins.
"Private Lives" may not be actorproof, but its crystalline illogic remains impressive.
Can she or can't she? Act, I mean. I am referring, you understand, to the 59-year-old (she seems to enjoy having that said about her - and why not?) Joan Collins, TV star and super-celebrity, who last night made her Broadway debut at the Broadhurst Theater in Noel Coward's "Private Lives." Wait, and I'll tell you later.
The public joy of "Private Lives" is its heady cocktail of flippancy, camp sensibility and Dionysiac naughtiness. Its skill is to be found in the use of platitudes to disguise feelings and its use of style to enable form to triumph over matter. Above all, it's fun.
It is one of the great classic comedies of manners in our language - although Coward maintained: "As a complete play it leaves a lot to be desired," while admitting that it is "a reasonably well-constructed duologue for two experienced performers, with a couple of extra puppets thrown in to assist the plot and to provide contrast."
Coward, with that certain careful modesty calculated to surprise, does himself, and his play, a grave injustice. And ever since its debut in 1930, with Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence as the "two experienced performers" and an unlikely Laurence Olivier as one of the "puppets," its talent to amuse has attracted many actors - this is the fourth major Broadway production in 25 years - anxious to skate exquisitely on its delicately thin ice.
It is difficult in its fragility. A situation is set up - two couples are on their honeymoon in Monte Carlo, with rooms that share a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. Coincidence - the man, Elyot, of one pairing, was once married to the woman, Amanda, of the other pairing.
Divorced through hopeless incompatibility, they are monsters of a feather, possessed of hearts "jagged with sophistication." Swept away by renewed passion, and realizing the unlikeliness of their new marriages to conventional dullards, they elope.
That's the end of the first act, and that's the end of the play. It goes on, of course, and goes on in a blather of brilliantly observed talk. The gay divorcees are eventually discovered in their Parisian love nest by their lawful but unconsummated spouses - the divorcees are of course fighting like cats and cats at the time. That's another act. The following morning, after deciding again that bores are bores, Amanda and Elyot once again elope. Final curtain. Until next time.
A mechanism for laughter - but beneath the laughter lies the flip side of love, a seriousness that doesn't take itself too seriously but feeds on a passion it takes time out to mock. Coward makes us believe that - given the right actors - there are people like that.
Collins, who trained very respectably at RADA in her native London, had done comparatively little stage work before taking on "Private Lives," first in London and now here. Yet she is no neophyte, and any perveted snob going to the theater hoping to see a TV super-matron falling over such of the furniture that she did not actually chew up can save his money and avoid disappointment.
Yes, Miss Collins can act...and she doesn't act badly. Nor does she really act well. She acts - I suppose one would have to say - indifferently.
There is not a great deal of energy beneath her readings, or much individuality. For example take that archetypal Cowardian line (and, in my experience, you can pretty much judge an Amanda by the way she delivers it) "Very flat, Norfolk." Hear a Maggie Smith say that and it would even give Galileo pause for thought. But Collins' inflection is simply, well, flat.
She's better when she's angry, and there is a nice flamboyance to some of her gestures, a grandeur to some of her moves. And she seems - Coward would have liked this - to have a sense of humor about herself.
Simon Jones, her partner, is not quite as good as I would have expected him to be. He has the right style, and looks intriguingly like a mildly embittered basset hound, mournful but dangerous. Studiously, avoiding any temptation for clip-toned Cowardly mimicry, he gives the lines with carefully aimed zest; but there doesn't seems much in the way of chemistry between him and Collins.
Coward has Amanda describing the lovers as being like "two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle." I missed the bubbling.
Arvin Brown's staging is very smooth - although he makes some rather odd changes in the text at times - and Loren Sherman's scenery proves suitably slick without being sickly, while William Ivey Long scores heavily with his period costuming.
Finally, as Coward's too unfaily dubbed puppets, Edward Duke is first-rate as the pompous, priggish Victor, while Jill Tasker makes a suitably annoying and simpering Sybil.
If you haven't seen the play before you'll enjoy the evening more than if you have, particularly if you also have a natural curiosity to see Miss Collins in the flesh. She is - as Dutch Schultz said admiringly of Billy Bathgate - "capable."
For those of us who never warmed to her latter-day incarnation in "Dynasty," Joan Collins will always be the very sexy young actress who took the trashy parts Elizabeth Taylor rejected in the Technicolor B movies of the 1950's. So there's a certain rough justice in the fact that the revival of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" that has brought Miss Collins to the Broadhurst towers over the production that Miss Taylor and Richard Burton visited upon Broadway in 1983.
Is it rude to point out that nearly every other play seen on Broadway in the last decade or so, with the possible exception of "Moose Murders," also towered over the Taylor-Burton "Private Lives"?
Well, let's leave those bitter memories behind and focus instead on the spectacle at hand, which, while not remotely a satisfying production of Coward's classic 1930 comedy, may well titillate Miss Collins's most ardent admirers. The truth is that the star, if only by default, is the most spontaneous thing in Arvin Brown's production. After the nervous opening scene, in which she hyperventilates as if she had been shot out of a cannon, she relaxes into her task like a practiced hostess eager to please. An ideal Amanda Prynne she is not, but she may be the best possible Joan Collins.
The actress and the play are more or less the same age, and if the play seems younger, that's a tribute to Coward, not a comment on Miss Collins's considerable talent for self-preservation. "Private Lives" may have little plot and, its oft-quoted zingers notwithstanding, a lot of inconsequential dialogue. Yet beneath that famously brittle surface lies a burning plea for the right to lead an uninhibited, even hedonistic private life. When Amanda and her former husband, Elyot Chase, meet up by chance while on their respective second honeymoons and run away together -- only to come to fisticuffs soon thereafter -- Coward creates an exquisite tension between the unruly dictates of sexual passion and the absurdly arbitrary rituals of middle-class propriety, marriage and divorce included.
Mr. Brown's production, which seems not so much directed as stage-managed, is content with mining the work's superficial details. The pace is brisk, the timing of the lines is appropriately clipped and the total effect is monotonous. The director's reading is less a violation of Coward's intent than a mechanization of it, designed to net the sure-fire laughs on the wisecracks and to give an Anglophilic American audience some broad approximation of a vanished Continental elegance.
Sex seems the last thing this "Private Lives" has on its mind. Simon Jones, the good comic actor cast as Elyot, gives a totally neutered farcical performance, completely robbing his leading lady of an erotic partner with whom she might alternately spark and spar. The only spine in Mr. Jones's Elyot is to be found in his enunciation of lines like "Don't quibble, Sybil." Neither his lust nor his violent rage for Amanda is paid any more than lip service, and it's stiff-upper-lip service at that.
The supporting performances contributed by Edward Duke and Jill Tasker as the discarded new spouses and Margie Rynn as the briefly seen French maid all rely on trick comic voices, with Miss Tasker's whine being insufferable far beyond the dreary Sybil's call of duty. When these actors are at full tizzy, it is calming to study Loren Sherman's scenery, which is suitably glossy to frame the star and is, in the case of a wood-paneled Art Deco Parisian flat, novel as well as attractive.
As for that star, maybe she would rise higher if one of the other performances made some claim on her attention, sexual or otherwise. Then again, maybe not. Her vocal range is quite narrow, and one senses that her histrionic range boasts fewer colors than her many costumes. She seems to have chosen "Private Lives" out of the belief that it will stay within the boundaries of her celebrity personality rather than make any demands on her as an actress.
Amanda does require more, and those deeper qualities, among them an anarchic spirit and a touch of heartache, are not to be found in Miss Collins's alternately good-natured and mildly bitchy portrayal. One enjoys both her relish with a double-entendre and her big, glowing eyes, which besides living up to lovely memories, often suggest that she is as surprised to find herself on stage as we are to see her there.