Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the

April 18, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On Broadway: `Design for Living’

Although Broadway’s new production of Noel Coward’s

naughty-but-nice sex charade, "Design for Living," is still

set in 1933, its rightful era, it has been given a bountiful measure

of contemporary resonance by director Joe Mantello. It appears like

a fresh, sometimes turbulent breeze, unmindful of the arch, high

society

atmosphere that has previously characterized the play. Although the

dialogue remains unchanged, Mantello (director of the memorable

"Love!

Valour! Compassion!") has aggressively freed the play from the

rarified airs as they might have once applied to social conduct.

The conflict remains the same — Otto loves Leo, and Leo loves

Gilda, but Otto also loves Gilda who also loves Leo — yet the

performers are no longer embracing the more stolid Cowardian graces

and affectations, as much as they are out to embrace and beguile a

modern audience with a new age impudence and style. In the hands of

its three stars — Alan Cumming, Jennifer Ehle, and Dominic West

— the amoral frolicking never seems to take itself too seriously,

even as it rings with astonishing truthfulness.

Regrettably, I was born too late to see the playwright and actor

Coward

cavort onstage in this play with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. I

do have a videotape of Ernst Lubitch’s stilted, censored, and

otherwise

mutilated film version starring Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and

Gary Cooper. Equally mutilated was the relatively recent production

at McCarter Theater in May, 1999, a grievously joyless and superficial

rendering of the work.

Although "Design for Living" is noted for being one of

Coward’s

more self-conscious plays, the self-centered immoralists who propel

the action are no longer seen in this staging as shallow pawns

buffeted

about by a shower of Coward’s sass and wit. There is more fun than

ever keeping up with these three, as they flit from Otto’s Paris loft

to Leo’s flat in London, ending up two years later in Ernest’s New

York penthouse.

What makes it more fun is that the haranguing, bickering, and carping

resounds with new millennium pretensions and posturing. Of course,

this too will appear arch come mid-century. But we’ll let the next

generation make their own aesthetic judgements about taste and

temperament.

What a pleasure to feel the sexual tension that is presumably Coward’s

most earnest intention. Notwithstanding the clowning that goes on,

the possibility of seduction is keenly felt in every scene. Ehle,

who received a Tony award last season for best actress in "The

Real Thing," is one of the more charming and poignantly affecting

Gildas I have seen in a while.

Here is a Gilda who, shorn of the formal grace that generally typifies

her, is not inconsequentially a sexy, tempestuous, amorous woman —

misguided and psychologically immature though she may be. In Ehle’s

hands, Gilda’s constant griping and whining is not tiring, but rather

remarkably touching. Co-habitation for Gilda seems not only a

reasonable

solution for her, but also for the two gay men she has intoxicated.

As the nonsensical friends and/or lovers, Cumming and West are an

incomparable pair of frivolous dudes who irresponsibly romp and cavort

through their bi-sexual dalliances. Cumming, winner of the best actor

award for his role as the emcee in "Cabaret," plays the artist

Otto. While unmistakably gay in his mode and manner, Otto’s need for

Gilda’s love seems ruefully sincere. If his pierced eyebrow and

blonde-tipped

hair seems a bit too trendy, his Otto, nevertheless, is irreverent

and out of the closet with a fury. For dangerous contrast, the

handsome

West is making his Broadway debut as Leo, the playwright. Whereas

in the past the play is usually perceived as being the playground

for two bi-sexually-guarded men, West’s instincts are as appealingly

blithe as they are grounded in reality.

John Cunningham, as the constantly nonplussed art dealer, Ernest,

who becomes Gilda’s husband, affords more imperious spontaneity to

the role than we have come expect. Jenny Sterlin is a delight as Miss

Hodges, a constantly dismayed but diligent housekeeper. T. Scott

Cunningham

and Jessica Stone are funny as an American couple unmercifully ribbed

in the last scene by the by then unconscionable Leo and Otto. Merisa

Berenson also scores as a rich dame and prospective client of Gilda,

now a successful interior decorator.

Designer Robert Brill has contributed three stunning sets: Otto’s

London loft studio is nightmarish collage of paintings, posters, and

pamphlets; Leo’s gaudy bouquet-bombarded London flat; and Ernest’s

New York breathtaking Deco-deluxe penthouse, each impeccably designed

for living. Although you will recognize this "Design for

Living"

as the ultra-sophisticated romp it is, you will also feel that you

are seeing the play for the very first time. Good show. Three stars:

You won’t feel cheated.

— Simon Saltzman

Design for Living, American Airlines Theater, 227 West

42 Street, New York, 212-719-1300. $40 & $65.


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