Divas duke it out in West End

Madonna, Paltrow make news in concurrent bows

LONDON — And the winner is … Gwyneth! No, Madonna! No, Gwyneth! No, Madonna!

Depending on whom you talk to, or what you read, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna each can claim a victory of sorts in their West End legit debuts, with the two superstars opening within eight days of each other in soldout runs of “Proof” and “Up for Grabs,” respectively.

The fact that Paltrow spent time early on lodging at the Ritchies’ manse only made the comparisons doubly keen.

Before either one had reached her press night, the Evening Standard’s Hot Tickets magazine was announcing Madge, as Madonna is known locally, the victor over Paltrow, aka Gwynnie.

In an article reeking with class envy, journalist Johann Hari faulted “whiny American aristocrat” Paltrow for being “a strikingly simple, obvious creature” next to the “gloriously complex Madonna … the hard girl made good.”

And Madonna was the no-contest victor in column inches. In previews, her first-act smooch with co-star Megan Dodds garnered extensive tabloid coverage: “Maddy’s sexy stage kiss … and it’s a girl,” trumpeted a “gobsmacked” (as the Brits like to put it) Daily Mail.

Elsewhere, Madonna’s every move (or lack thereof — according to one gossip column, she sat out her play’s technical rehearsal) turned up in print, as befits a country where, “Up for Grabs” scribe David Williamson told Variety, “She only has to breathe for it to be front-page news.”

Paltrow, by contrast, had to settle for a pre-opening account of her British stage debut in “Proof” penned by an Evening Standard reporter with an apparent foot fetish: The article focused mostly on the Oscar-winning thesp’s toes.

Then came the ladies’ opening nights. Paltrow’s was a quiet, attentive affair at the intimate Donmar, followed by a bash at One Aldwych, the same hostelry where “The Blue Room” star Nicole Kidman 3½ years ago had her Donmar press-night party.

But amid an audience in which visiting New York industry types (producer Roger Berlind, Manhattan Theater Club’s Barry Grove) outnumbered designer celebs, the one obvious indication of the soldout show’s appeal was a highly visible Harvey Weinstein.

The Miramax exec was on a cell phone even at intermission talking up his eventual film of “Proof,” with the play’s London director, John Madden, once again working with his “Shakespeare in Love” star, a distinctly nasal Paltrow.

Marking his first London stage directing credit in 21 years with the Donmar “Proof,” onetime New York theater regular Madden (“Wings,” “Grown Ups”) proved he hasn’t lost his touch, even if the Chekhovian allure of a staging begun by candlelight was occasionally at odds with the essentially boulevard nature of David Auburn’s play.

Eight days later, an audience seemingly drunk on fame — Donatella Versace and Stella McCartney repping one kind of glamour, “Closer” scribe Patrick Marber and father-and-son directors Sir Peter and Edward Hall another — gathered at Wyndham’s to whoop it up for Madonna’s first appearance. (One member of Guy Ritchie’s entourage had to be silenced by a colleague so she could hear the play.)

Keeping an eye on the audience were Madonna’s various bodyguards and producer Sonia Friedman, the latter appareled in a Madonna-like body-hugging number suitable to the occasion.

Author Williamson, meanwhile, had spent that day wondering how best to conceal himself — not easy when you’re 6’8″. “I can’t shrink,” said the affable Sydney-based scribe. “I can’t hide; I’m just there.”

The author may have wished he were anywhere else once the reviews emerged. However tough they were on Madonna — who, to be fair, also elicited a rave or two (“Miracle Madge takes a bow,” thundered the Sunday Express) — they were considerably harsher toward Williamson’s art-market commentary.

Madonna, wrote Georgina Brown in the Mail on Sunday, “is far better than this feeble little play deserves.” The star’s “pointy elbow work,” said the Observer’s Susannah Clapp, paled next to “a satire so obvious … that it is hard to believe it’s not parodying its sentimental self.”

“Of course, it could have been worse,” wrote the Sunday Times’ John Peter, a pussycat here baring his claws. “Madonna could have chosen a good play, which would have shown her up even more cruelly.”

Not that the response should matter much to the backers of a play that sold out within 10 days of being announced; you don’t produce Madonna expecting the sorts of reviews you would get with Judi Dench.

Said Adam Spiegel, a rival West End producer who is a friend of “Up for Grabs’ ” Friedman: “Sonia will delight in the association with Madonna; I think it’s a huge coup.” To that extent, any money to be made from a play that costs $100,000 a week to run matters less than the cachet it confers on those associated with it.

Over at the Donmar, meanwhile, Paltrow prompted bouquets — the Times’ Benedict Nightingale was about the only London critic not to fall at her feet — even if the drama’s Tony- and Pulitzer-winning author did not. (Then again, acclaimed American shows in London transfers rarely do — cf. “Wit,” “How I Learned to Drive,” “Rent” and so on).

Calling “Proof” “Broadway’s mistaken idea of a truly penetrating play,” the Independent’s Paul Taylor nonetheless thought “Paltrow makes a strong impression.”

“I fancy ‘Proof’ will rate as the most pretentious play of 2002 over here,” decided the Evening Standard’s Nicholas de Jongh, who liked nothing about the evening beyond Paltrow. (In fact, both Sara Stewart and Richard Coyle, playing the damaged Catherine’s sister and boyfriend, respectively, give the name draw a run for her money.)

But it was left to the Independent on Sunday’s Kate Bassett, in an article titled “In Bedlam With Madonna,” to sum up as headline-making thespian competition as the West End has seen in years.

“In the West End’s current match of the superstars,” Bassett wrote of Madonna, “she’s no match for Gwyneth Paltrow.”

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