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.
Sunday, April 23, 2006
Design for Living by Saltzman
Simon Saltzman writes a review on Design for Living. That's right, no news on upcoming projects.