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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Design For Living
By Chesley Plemmons

People are wrong when they say opera isn't what it used to be. It is what it used to be. And that's the problem. — Gilda, reporting on a gala evening out

Tom Pecinka, Paul Cooper, and Chris Geary (Photo by Emily Faulkner)
Without some element of new illumination, the potential of a theater revival can often be at risk. That is what has happened to the production of Noel Coward's Design for Living which opened Saturday night at the Unicorn Theatre. A frothy comedy with sexual overtones, it debuted in a much more conservative era and a revival has the choice of duplicating the original veiled concept or refocusing without changing the style of the work.

Coward's early 1930's comedy involving a romantic menage of artists (one woman, two men) was considered shocking in its day. It opened on Broadway in 1933, but censors in England prohibited a production there until 1939. He wrote the play as a vehicle for himself and two close friends, the famed husband and wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. How much of the plot was inspired or drawn from true incidents has always been the subject of amused speculation.

The Stockbridge production is nicely turned out with chic touches of period style in both the sets and costumes, and it boasts three young charasmastic actors heading up the cast. Design's particular menage a trios was not the usual triangular love affair or what we mortals nowadays call a three-way. It was instead, at least initially, three separate love affairs: one between two men and two with the woman matched to each of the two men. Calling Dr. Ruth.

What the Berkshire Theatre Group's production lacks in a necessary semblance of believability about the emotional and physical aspects of the relationships. I'll bet today's audiences would still be willing to accept most of the froth in the play if they could be certain about wha, if anything, goes on in the bedroom.

It's a simple story: Gilda loves Otto. Otto loves Gilda. Leo loves Gilda. Gilda loves Leo. Leo loves Otto. Otto loves Leo. Add Coward's jaded wit and stir. There are asides about fame, the arts, the perils of success and so on, but the real focus in on how bizarre this trio becomes.

At the time the play debuted, the actual physical relationship between the two men was only obliquely presented, though anyone reasonably in the know would have guessed the score.Gilda (Ariana Venturi) plays Gilda a successful interior decorator; Otto (Chris Geary) is a successful novelist (based on Coward) while Leo (Tom Pecinka) is an up-and-coming artist. Why each loves the other two with such passion is hard to understand.

Most grievous lapse is the affected, effeminate performance the director has allowed Chris Geary to deliver as Otto, a stand-in for Coward. Almost a mirror image of England's swishy, gay, televsion host, Graham Norton, Geary's Otto wouldn't seem to be an attractive mate to either Leo or Gilda.

Venturi is a most attractive, pert actress and she registers an amusing air of mild hysteria that Holly Golightly might have displayed given the same circumstnaces. But her Gilda, with little depth of character or intellect, is an unlikely muse for the two men — more a high school sweetheart at best. Of the three principals, Pecinka is the most successful bridging the gap between a true aesthete and a hot-blooded lover.

Director Story has taken advantage of today's freer sexual attitudes to allow Leo and Otto to kiss, and often. That helps a bit, but somehow the sexual attraction and fulfillment between them all remains pretty vague.

The director also provides some hit and miss physical comedy that adds some fizz to the proceedings though Molly Heeler's Miss Hodge, an Agnes Gooch in work boots, is a bit of a push. Paul Cooper, however, gives a nicely modulated performance as Ernest, an observant and patient friend.
There's a drunk scene in which Leo and Otto get wildly plastered which reminded me very much of a similar scene between two London wives in Coward's Fallen Angels. That may ultimately be the crux of the matter. These are three angels but they really aren't fallen. When they retire to the bedroom together one assumes they'll just curt up like three adorable puppies. Shocking.

Design for Living by Noel Coward
Directed by Tom Story
Cast: Tom Pecinka (Leo), Ariana Venturi (Gilda), Chris Geary (Otto), Molly Heller (Miss Hodge), Paul Cooper (Ernest Friedman), Madeline Calandrillo (Helen Carver), Nick Perron (Henry Carver) Andrew Flynn (Mr. Birbeck), Dylan Zalikowski (Matthew).
Scenic designer: Reid Thompson
Costume design: Hunter Kaczorowski
Lighting design: Dan Kotlowitz
Sound design: Steve Brush
Stage manager: Jeff Ryder
Through August 16
Unicorn Theatre, Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge Campus 83 East Main Street, Stockbridge, Mass.
Performances are Tuesdays, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8, Wednesdays at 7 and matinees Saturdays at 2.
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including one 10-minute and one 15-minute intermission.
Tickets are $48.
Reviewed at the opening night performance, Aug. 2
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