If you'd like to see the way Design for Living was done for the mass audience of its own era, check out the 1933 movie version written by Coward and Ben Hecht. Ernst Lubitsch directed, and the film stars Gary Cooper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. It's actually quite entertaining, but it's not the play that Noël Coward wrote, whereas what's on stage at the American Airlines is precisely what he wrote. Mantello has pulled the play into the 21st century with an entirely viable pushing of the sexual envelope. The production has problems, but it is handsome, boldly acted, and bravely directed.
There is an axiom about plays by Coward: Best to keep them light and frothy. These works are supposed to be sipped like bubbling champagne, but how refreshing it is that Design for Living here tastes like "wry" on the rocks. This is the story of a threesome: Otto the painter (Alan Cumming), Leo the playwright (Dominic West), and Gilda the decorator (Jennifer Ehle), she being the woman who stands at the tip of the romantic comedy triangle. Their relationship, as Coward created it, is the subject of much humor; the difference in this production is that there is something more at stake. The laughs are tempered with the uncomfortable realization that these three artists are real people, with real problems and real needs. The most significant change in the interpretation of the play isn't that homosexuality is allowed to flourish openly between Otto and Leo, it's that all three of these characters are intensely needy, theatrically self-absorbed, and undeniably human.
Mantello's approach works in large degree because the cast is so appealing. Alan Cumming's Otto is utterly adorable--part Harpo Marx, part Woody Allen, and part Gene Wilder. Cumming deepens the humor by infusing his character with a winsome charm that makes you want to hug him and muss up his hair. He is also the most obviously bisexual character in the play. Leo is the man of his dreams, a dashing, handsome, take-charge kind of fellow; Dominic West embodies the character, giving him a brash desirability.
Jennifer Ehle's Gilda is the sour cream in the fruit bowl--the mix is tasty, but not everyone goes for it. Last year's Best Actress Tony winner for The Real Thing, Ehle has the play's pivotal role. She's not just a free-spirited modern woman, as she has always seemed; this Gilda is a more neurotic, modern woman, trying to find her way in the world. She wants to be the equal of these two men, not just the object of their affection. That element of the character is in the text, but this production brings it out in full force. Ehle captures Gilda's need for self-fulfillment, but she is less successful at communicating her sexual allure. We're more convinced that Otto and Leo love each other than we are of her relationship with them.
This is an important failing, but not a fatal one, and the play is further buoyed by a sensational supporting cast. John Cunningham gives one of the best performances of his long career as the sympathetic art dealer Ernest. Marisa Berenson is "Grace," indeed--an elegant New York sophisticate. Jenny Sterlin gets laughs aplenty as the housekeeper, Miss Hodge, and T. Scott Cunningham and Jessica Stone are wonderfully brittle as nouveau riche New Yorkers.
The play's locales move from Bohemian Paris to high-class London to glamorous NYC with ease, thanks to Robert Brill's set design. The cluttered artist's loft in Paris almost looks like a scene from a black and white movie, the London hotel suite seems appropriate to a Neil Simon comedy, and the swanky New York penthouse has that austere look of art deco decadence. Likewise, Bruce Pask's costume designs run the gamut from devil-may-care poor to outrageously rich. Jame Vermeulen's lighting effectively establishes mood.
Overarching all is Joe Mantello's conception of the play. This is a director who understands comedy (his credits include Love! Valour! Compassion!, The Mineola Twins, and Snakebit), and he rightly allows Alan Cumming full reign as a clown while never allowing him to become a buffoon. It's a sweetly comic performance that owes much to the balance Mantello maintains with his tight direction of the rest of the play. Though this version of Design for Living will not appeal to everyone, Mantello has served Coward well.
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