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
atmosphere that has previously characterized the play. Although the
dialogue remains unchanged, Mantello (director of the memorable
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
cavort onstage in this play with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. I
do have a videotape of Ernst Lubitch’s stilted, censored, and
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
more self-conscious plays, the self-centered immoralists who propel
the action are no longer seen in this staging as shallow pawns
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
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
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
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
hair seems a bit too trendy, his Otto, nevertheless, is irreverent
and out of the closet with a fury. For dangerous contrast, the
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
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
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
42 Street, New York, 212-719-1300. $40 & $65.
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