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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
"Design For Living." It deserves to be revived at least once
for every generation and especially in this year in which we are
the Coward centennial.
What "Design For Living" doesn’t deserve is a production
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
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
Theater, where it played prior to the McCarter engagement, is under
the direction of Stephen Wadsworth. It also appears stilted and
and for different reasons than the film. Those familiar with
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
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
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
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
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
fibers of the bi-sexual doings like old time vaudevillians Smith and
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
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
them, impeccably designed for living.
— Simon Saltzman
Place, 609-683-8000. $25 to $36; $10 ages 25 and under. Through May
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