by Lynn on October 4, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

While both these productions will be reviewed separately, they do have a similar theme. In a very tenuous way, the theme is celebrity.

HIS GREATNESS by Daniel MacIvor, is described as “A potentially true story about the playwright Tennessee Williams.”

And while PRIVATE LIVES by Noël Coward is not about celebrity, celebrity surrounds the production because thetwo stars are Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross, both of whom have starred in television shows, movies etc. I’m fascinated about how celebrity just attracts all sorts of people, as if some of their fame will spread around if we get close enough.

It doesn’t.

Certainly the celebrity of Cattrall and Gross brought people to the theatre—a good thing in this case. But I’m always mystified when the audience goes wild with applause when the star comes on stage.

Are we trying to impress them; show we recognize them? The applause doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does I just roll my eyes.

In the first scene of PRIVATE LIVES, blonde woman came on stage and there was a smattering of applause because some thought it was Kim Cattrall.

It wasn’t. Oh dear.

Besides, applause at that point just stops the show and puts the actors off their timing. But enough of that.


At the Factory Studio Theatre. Written by Daniel MacIvor. Directed by Ed Roy. Set and lighting by Kimberly Purtell. Costumes by Nina Okens. Sound by Lyon Smith. Starring: Richard Donat, Greg Gale, Daniel MacIvor.

What does “A potentially true story about playwright Tennessee Williams” mean?

In 1980 American playwright Tennessee Williams was down on his luck. His plays weren’t being produced regularly. He was having trouble writing new plays. Critics said he was past his prime, that he had lost his greatness.

He was drinking heavily and taking various ‘medications’…pills, drugs etc. Then he got an invitation to be the writer-in-residence at the University of British Columbia. He jumped at the chance. There would also be a production of his play RED DEVIL BATTERY SIGN at the Vancouver Playhouse. The play had opened on Broadway five years before and flopped. Williams needed that UBC gig and for the play to have a good production in Vancouver.

HIS GREATNESS is about the opening night of the play and the day after. Playwright, Daniel MacIvor has taken liberties to tell his idea of what went on. There are three characters: Playwright, Assistant and Young Man.

The play is told from the point of view of the “Assistant”.

The Assistant had been working for the Playwright for about 17 years. They met at a dinner party. The playwright had picked him up and they have been together every since. Carrying for him; running interference; trying to keep him out of trouble and sometimes
failing, and generally bolstering his ego.

One of his jobs for this opening, was to arrange for a young male escort to go with the Playwright to the opening, then the party, and perhaps stay for other activities.

We do not see the Playwright and the Young Man at the opening. The whole play takes place in the rather comfortable and well appointed hotel room of the Playwright.

And we certainly get an idea how that relationship has played out over all those years. The Playwright is needy, manipulative, amusing and obviously fragile.

The play opens with him still asleep in the middle of the day and the Assistant has to coax him to wake up, and get up and prepare for a phone interview. The interviewer is unkind, cutting and snide, The Playwright is angry and shattered. The Assistant has to go into high gear to calm him down.

Then the whole dynamic changes when the Young Man comes on the scene. He’s the guy that the Assistant has hired to be the Playwright’s ‘date’ for the opening. The Young Man is a street hustler. He has no idea who the Playwright is.

The Playwright is charming, leering, accomplished in this kind of situation. And he’s buoyed up by the youth and beauty of the man. He says he will write a play for him. The Young Man is all sex. He’s not book smart but he’s street smart. This leaves the Assistant sort of out of the loop. He knows it will end badly for the Playwright and
the hustler. It’s interesting to see how he does it.

It ‘s a huge challenge to write a character who we know is Tennessee Williams and Daniel MacIvor pulls it off on the whole.

The dialogue is dazzling. For the Playwright it’s elevated and poetic, witty, courtly almost, but with innuendo. The Assistant matches him quip for quip. He knows him and how to handle him.

The Young Man is low-down, all thrusting hips and come on sex. He’s not bright but he knows how to play the sex game. It’s interesting to see how he fares with the Assistant., and later with the Playwright.

A quibble. I thought the banter between the Assistant and Playwright gets a bit bogged down with its own cleverness, in the middle of the play. But will excuse it because assuming the speech and wit of Tennessee Williams and to bring it off is a huge feat.

As for the production, it’s terrific. I’ve never seen the Factory Studio Theatre stage look so good. Set and lighting designer, Kimberly Purtell has created a comfortable, broad-loomed hotel room with lots of cushions, liquor and good clothes for the guys.

Director Ed Roy has established the relationships of the three men beautifully: The Playwright is smiling and debonair. The Young Man gives him come-hither looks, and the Assistant looking from one to the other trying to keep order.

The performances are superb. As The Playwright, Richard Donat is a graceful bear of a man. He has the languid drawl and grace of Tennessee Williams, right down to the almost lisp of a man with a dry mouth—the dry mouth of a man who does too many drugs. Interestingly, Donat was in that production of Red Devil Battery Sign in Vancouver and remembers Williams.

As the Young Man, Greg Gale is all sexuality and a touch of danger.

And as the Assistant, Daniel MacIvor plays a man who never stops moving to clean up, pick up, bolster, and keep things on track. He’s seen it all. He cares about the Playwright, but you can see that it’s wearing thin.

HIS GREATNESS is a dandy production.

PRIVATE LIVESWHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? In that one a married couple—Martha and George—battle and insult and get violent both physically and with the language—and they also love each other dearly. Same with Amanda and Elyot in PRIVATE LIVES.

What makes this an exquisite production? Richard Eyre is a brilliant director. He knows how to set the scene, get the humour out of every situation, and his sense of style is faultless. And there is real danger in this production. Amanda and Elyot are explosive, when dealing with each other. They are also sexual animals. There’s nothing polite about their appetites for each other.

I was pleasantly surprised by Kim Cattrall as Amanda. She’s slim, sensual, glides across the stage with body language that says ‘I’m fabulous.’

Her first entrance is in a towel wrapped around her. Amanda has just come from the shower.But Coward says in his stage directions she’s in a negligee. Ok, I don’t mind liberties with stage directions. But these are impeccably mannered people and Amanda wouldn’t appear in a towel. Samantha from Sex in the City would—perhaps a little reminder to us of Cattrall’s major claim to fame? Trust the audience. We don’t need it. She looks great and would still in a negligee. The towel is wrong.

I was also glad that since I last saw her on stage she projects well—none of that ‘vein acting’, when an actor bellows so much to be heard, the neck vein pops out from being stressed. None of that here from Ms Cattrall in his performance..

But I thought she rushed to answer a line as if she was waiting for the cue word and replying to that, and not the line itself. And I thought she lost some of Amanda’s jokes by not emphasizing the joke word in a sentence. For example, Amanda makes a comment about a boring party by saying something like: “it was saved from the ordinary by my having hiccups….”

‘Hiccups’ is the joke….Cattrall just sails through the word without framing it, setting us up for the joke of it. I have faith that that timing will come with doing the show.

Paul Gross as Elyot is a revelation. He’s debonair, hugely attractive, sophisticated and speaks Coward’s lines as if he been in a tuxedo all his life. Gross has grace, a quick wit and is a wonderful match to Cattrall’s Amanda.

As Victor, Simon Paisley Day is slim, with a chiseled chin that looks like it can cut paper. He’s priggish, uptight and upright. Wonderful performance.

As Sybil Anna Madeley has that clinging neediness but youthful assertion that Is both maddening and charming. And there is the small part of the maid who speaks nothing but French, played by Caroline Lena Olsson, and she’s terrific. You don’t doubt for a minute what she’s saying about all these idiotic people.

So, a wonderful, dazzling production of PRIVATE LIVES. Two good bets for the theatre this week.

HIS GREATNESS plays at the Factory Studio Theatre until Oct. 23
PRIVATE LIVES plays at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until Oct. 30

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