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A CurtainUp Review
Design For Living
By Elyse Sommer
When Leo, the playwright in Noël Coward's Design for Living, declares "Life is a pleasure trip, a cheap excursion," he might well be describing the "new" 42nd Street with its flashy neon-lit honky tonk flavor. Since the play dates back to 1933, Leo's allusion is to the free-wheeling life style espoused by three glamorous Bohemians: Leo, a playwright (modeled on Coward and originally played by him); Otto, a painter; and Gilda the glamorous interior decorator they both love and who in turn loves them (the Otto and Gilda roles originated by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne).
As Leo and his pals Otto and Gilda lived apart from the conventions of the day, so the Roundabout's American Airline Theatre stands apart from the new 42nd Street's bustle -- a tasteful, comfortable home made to order for interestingly cast, elegantly staged and stylishly reinterpreted name-brand plays. The current revival of Design for Living delivers on this Roundabout design for bringing old plays back to life. What it doesn't deliver is the sophistication and soufflé lightness that were part of Coward's design for all his work.
Jennifer Ehle, Alan Cumming and Dominic West as Gilda, Otto and Leo should add an intriguing dynamic to Coward's three-pointed love affair. Ehle, last seen as another independent and contradictory woman in The Real Thing, seems ideally cast as the woman who declares "I shouldn't feel cozy married; it doesn't fit my principles" but who nevertheless ends up marrying Ernest, a successful and quite conventional art dealer (a character who, thanks to John Cunningham's excellent performance, is extremely likeable). But while Ehle delivers her lines with fine precision and looks smashing whether wearing a slip or one of several gorgeous silk kimonos, she's more moody than madcap, one reason that the evening's two and a half hours induce as many yawns as appreciative laughs.
The handsome Dominic West's virile Leo and Alan Cumming as a Cabaret-style Otto promise a fresh twist on Coward's tug of war for a prize each man would rather share than win. West, who gets the best lines, is actually quite good but Cumming is surprisingly disappointing. With his hair bleached lemon yellow, his eyebrows pierced in the best downtown New York club scene tradition, he is clearly the character responsible for helping director Joe Mantello uncloset the implicit reality of Coward's 1930s naughty but gay (in its old-fashioned sense) comedy. The trouble is that Mantello has directed Cumming to be more homosexual than bi-sexual, more clownish than witty. This is especially evident in the play's most famous scene in which Otto (wearing one of Gilda's kimonos) and Leo get drunk together. Bruce Pask's costumes, while great fun (especially Otto's entrance in a fire engine red coat), further undercut the characters as written by Coward.
The six scenes that trace the threesome's careers along with their coupling, uncoupling and à-trois-recoupling afford plenty of opportunity for drop-dead stage craft. Robert Brill does not disappoint. His sets transport us from Bohemian squalor in Paris to a posh London flat and a super-posh penthouse in New York -- with the scene shifts artfully abetted by James Vermeulen's lighting. The Parisian atelier of scene one (with Gilda the still undiscovered Otto's mistress) makes the garret in La Boheme seem plush by comparison.
The three scenes which constitute the second act (an appropriate re-organization of the original three-act format) take us to the London flat where Gilda, after the split with Otto, lives with Leo. The couple's domestic needs are catered to by a Miss Hodge who, as played by Jenny Sterlin, is the most quintessential Coward character on stage. The place is a virtual florist's shop, filled as it is with roses sent after the opening of Leo's hit play. But as those roses won't keep blooming, neither will the Gilda-Leo relationship and so it's on to New York and Ernest's duplex. Here a post-opera soiree hosted by Gilda (now Mrs. Ernest and a successful decorator) is interrupted by her erstwhile lovers, now a campy twosome. These final scenes even though not a last minute reprieve from Mantello's heavy-handed reinterpretation of Coward's piquant style, are the production's liveliest and funniest. This is especially true of the penultimate scene which is perked up by the soiree guests, especially T.Scott Cunningham and Jessica Stone as an amusing ugly American couple.
The New York penthouse, complete with circular staircase and private elevator, is the sleekest and most eye-popping example of Mr. Brill's stage magic. Too bad this Coward circa 2001 lacks the magic of Coward circa 1933.