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Review: `Design for Living’

This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

May 12, 1999. All rights reserved.

Behold the concentrated essence of life among the artists.

Otto loves Leo, and Leo loves Gilda. But Otto also loves Gilda who

also loves Leo. Yet Leo, you see, is still in love with Otto, so Gilda

marries Ernest…for a while. Now that was real decadence in 1933.

In 1999, let’s just consider it a bit untidy. The play is Noel

Coward’s

"Design For Living." It deserves to be revived at least once

for every generation and especially in this year in which we are

celebrating

the Coward centennial.

What "Design For Living" doesn’t deserve is a production

designed

to distraction. Indeed, it is distracting and disconcerting to see

comedians substituted for Cowardians. Sorry to report that Sir Noel’s

giddy sex charade has been tossed and turned into a joyless mechanical

romp for a company of clowns.

While "Design…" which is just chock full of amoral

frolicking,

may not shock today’s audiences as it did 66 years ago when it opened

in New York starring the playwright himself and the famed Lunts, it

is designed to beguile even the most Puritan-minded, with its ageless

impudence and style. Regrettably, I was not born in time to see the

playwright/actor cavort with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. I do have

on tape Ernst Lubitch’s stilted, censored and otherwise mutilated

film version starring Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Gary Cooper.

The McCarter Theater’s staging, a co-production with the Seattle

Repertory

Theater, where it played prior to the McCarter engagement, is under

the direction of Stephen Wadsworth. It also appears stilted and

mutilated

and for different reasons than the film. Those familiar with

Wadsworth’s

previous and very stylish stagings at McCarter, including a cycle

of lauded Marivaux plays, and Coward’s "Private Lives," had

better be prepared for a grievously superficial and joyless rendering

of one of Coward’s more self-conscious plays. It didn’t take me long

to get the distinct feeling that the cast was having a better time

than I was.

Stranger still, I am not so sure that that isn’t exactly the way the

play is designed, and certainly played in this current affront. I

am also not sure that the play, itself, can make up its mind as to

whether the characters should be viewed as self-centered immoralists,

or merely as shallow pawns, for the shower of Cowardian sass and wit.

Whatever it is, Wadsworth’s consideration of it is dizzying but not

in the least amusing.

One might note a slight similarity between the romantically entwined

quartet in Patrick Marber’s current Broadway hit "Closer,"

and the quartet of likewise callous intimates in "Design…"

Expectedly, there is less pain in Coward’s sexcapade. Flitting from

Otto’s Paris loft to Leo’s flat in London, and ending up two years

later in Ernest’s New York penthouse, the entwined troika plus one

harangue, bicker, and carp their way to a justly inevitable

arrangement.

Wadsworth proved, in his earlier production for McCarter of Coward’s

"Private Lives," that going against prescribed types need

not be disaster. This time he has grievously erred with a cast that

is hard pressed to keep up the frenetic pace he has prescribed, and

hard at work being unattractive, sexless, and boring.

Whatever the director’s reasons are for reuniting Francesca Faridany

and Jared Reed, who appeared in his staging of Marivaux’ "The

Game of Love and Chance," and Jeff Woodman, who appeared as Elyot

in "Private Lives," they defy my understanding.

While one has to acknowledge as daring the decision

taken by the director to turn a sexy sophisticated satire into a

fatuous

vaudeville show, Wadsworth’s direction unmercifully renders impotent

the play’s ability to seduce. Utter insanity has been inflicted on

the plot by having a relentlessly charmless and graceless Gilda. While

lacking the basics of sexual allure, Faridany’s formidably

unattractive

postures make Gilda’s incessant kvetching and whining as tiresome

as her stupefying glares. Co-habitation with anyone or anything seems

out of the question for this interior decorator who conveys not a

glimmer of interior life.

Reed and Woodman appear to be having a rip-roaring time as the

nonsensical

friends — one a playwright, the other, a portrait artist. These

are the Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee of gaydom. Oh so dapper and daffy,

they romp and cavort capriciously through the art Deco-dance and

synthetic

fibers of the bi-sexual doings like old time vaudevillians Smith and

Dale.

Woodman has a way of winning a few points and getting a few laughs

with his affectations and imperious spontaneity. But his bland Leo

is hardly the playwright to whom Coward would have given his heart.

With all the ascribed ranting and raving, Reed is the best of the

trio in capturing the essence of Coward’s brittle repartee. As Otto,

Reed adds the only sparkle to the generally lusterless proceedings,

and in particular to the mechanically choreographed drunk scene in

Act II.

Mark Chamberlin makes affectation seem admirable as the irrepressibly

nonplused Ernest, who conveniently sums this production up when he

says to Gilda: "Your lack of balance verges on insanity."

Doubling in minor roles, Sarah Brooke and Kevin Hogan gave decidedly

minor performances. Kevin Rupnik’s three stunningly upwardly uppity

settings and Martin Pakledinaz’ costumes were, unlike those who

invaded

them, impeccably designed for living.

— Simon Saltzman

Design for Living, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-683-8000. $25 to $36; $10 ages 25 and under. Through May

23.


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