Unabashedly cheesy and crude yet undeniably affecting, Brian Clark’s “Whose Life Is It Anyway” gets to you, despite your better instincts to snort. At the preview caught, a notably youthful audience rose to its feet — a testament to the kind of emotional agitprop that similar recent pics like “The Sea Inside” have done their best to avoid. Playing Claire Harrison, an art teacher and sculptor whom a car accident renders paralyzed from the neck down, Kim Cattrall cuts a firm-voiced, fearsomely candid presence whose vinegary facade conceals a heart of gold and a ruthless honesty.
Samantha Jones, the deliciously intrepid maneater that Cattrall played on “Sex and the City,” would no doubt warm to any play that uses the word “fuckable” within the opening minutes. Clark’s play, for all its emphasis on immobility, speaks the same salty language as the defiantly on-the-move HBO series that made Cattrall’s Samantha a sexual icon for our time.
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Whether Samantha would be similarly disposed to the entirety of this particular evening is an altogether different question. I can’t help but feel that Samantha would be too shrewd for the smart-ass repartee and affective gerrymandering that here pass for a play.
“Whose Life” remains one of the more celebrated “issue” plays of the late 1970s and was a hit in London and on Broadway, where it won a Tony for Tom Conti, playing sculptor Ken. In the search for a Broadway replacement for Conti, Clark & Co. had the idea of performing a sex change on the main character, a decision that resulted in a special 1980 Tony for the role’s distaff originator, Mary Tyler Moore.
That version, updated to include references to Stephen Hawking and Christopher Reeve as well as voice-recognition software, has made its debate-laden way back to Clark’s native Britain, where TV auds, drawn by the star, won’t be disappointed. By any other name, this play, let’s face it, is TV, too. (In fact, “Whose Life” was first broadcast on Granada six years before it was reconceived for the West End.)
One could carp about Clark’s rather brazen conflation of two time-tested genres: the disability play and the courtroom drama, the second of which acquires a real dynamism in this hearing due to the belated arrival of Janet Suzman, in superbly crisp form, as the judge who hears Claire’s case.
But the punters have come to see whether Cattrall can score with a live audience the way she does with the camera. And that she does, by treating Claire as kin after a fashion to Samantha, two plucky women who are unafraid in their embrace of sex, which, to Claire, is tantamount to a life force. Only by giving vent to that aspect of her character can Claire demand to die, refusing to allow her mind to follow the crippling path laid out by her body.
In some ways, it’s hard to take “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” seriously, especially with the jokiness revved up to include some awful wisecracks from the chief consultant (William Chubb), not to mention a black hospital orderly (an overfrenetic Jotham Annan) who looks as if he’d be happier understudying Savion Glover than working the ward.
The specifics of Claire’s debilitating state are as glossily finessed — a reference late on to a catheter reminds you briefly of her actual condition — as the actress’ smooth cheeks, which beg the question: How did Claire survive so appalling a car crash while her face still looks ready for her close-up? Still, these qualms were just as evident when a comparatively winsome Tyler Moore played the part.
Peter Hall, who directed Clark’s two-hander “The Petition,” has given the bedside enquiry real momentum, the various levels of designer Lucy Hall’s expert set (she’s a daughter of the director) always bustling with activity as if to accentuate the sorrowful stillness of the person center-stage. And the contrivance of the play that has put her there.