Saturday, April 15, 2006

"A Scandal in Bohemia"

A Design For Living review by Ben Brantley

"Everyone, it seems, is digging for emotional truth beneath the sheen of the sharp-edged triangle made up of Otto (Mr. Cumming), a painter; Gilda (Ms. Ehle), an interior decorator; and Leo (Mr. West), a playwright. This excavation is apparently meant not only to bring out the play's homoerotic elements (which is an old game already) but also to reveal the crushing anxieties of the modern world.

In a weird way the text justifies such a reading. Gilda in particular is always saying portentous things. (''The immediate horizon is gray and forbidding and dangerous.'') But to take such pronouncements at their word, rather than as the hyperbole of a drama queen, is to turn fresh comedy into stale melodrama. Coward's genius was in skating on the bright and brittle surfaces he created, winking at the abyss beneath but never descending into it.

Mr. Mantello chooses to stare instead of wink. The first image we see is Ms. Ehle in a black slip slouched in a chair in a cluttered garret, smoking. She looks as lonely and exposed as a figure in a Hopper painting. No question about it. To borrow a Coward song title, she's got those ''20th-Century Blues.''

This mood of uneasiness is sustained, with occasional forays into broad comedy, through the rondelay of musical beds that follows. The sensibility is underscored by the nervous curtain-raising music by Douglas J. Cuomo and harsh, contemporary covers of Coward songs (including ''Blues'') by artists like Bryan Ferry and Elton John. Robert Brill's large-scale Deco sets feel deliberately dwarfing and sterile.

More than anything, though, it is Ms. Ehle's performance that sets the neurotic standard. She brought an anchoring sincerity and ardor to last season's first-rate revival of Tom Stoppard's ''Real Thing,'' for which she won a Tony. The same grave intensity is misapplied to Coward.

Ms. Ehle's Gilda seems ravaged by guilt and self-disgust. She rattles off epigrams as if she wanted to dispose of them quickly, just as you expect her to tear up Bruce Pask's opulent period costumes in a fit of repentance. Whenever she laughs, one worries that it is merely a prelude to hysterics.

Her relationship with Otto and Leo is only combative, critical. She seems to feel little sexual pull toward either man, but the bigger problem is that you never believe that this trio shares a worldview."


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