Design for Living, a CurtainUp Berkshire review CurtainUp
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A CurtainUp BerkshireReview
Design For Living

I never intended for a moment that the design for living suggested in the play should apply to any but its three principal characters, Gilda, Otto and Leo. These glib, over-articulate and amoral creatures force their lives into fantastic shapes and problems because they cannot help themselves --- Noël Coward about the play written for and first performed by him (as Leo) and his friends Albert Lunt (as Otto) and Lynn Fontanne (as Gilda).
According to Leo (Steven Weber), one of the three smart, overly articulate, tightly bonded Bohemians at the center of Noël Coward's Design For Living "the whole business of living is a process of adjusting." For Otto (Campbell Scott), a painter, that means adjusting to the idea that Gilda (Marisa Tomei ), an interior decorator who has lived with him in his Parisian atelier, has become playwright Leo's lover.

On the surface, the 1932 play fits Coward's oeuvre of sophisticated comedies full of light and bubbly banter by characters who could have stepped out of the pages of The Smart Set. It's no longer shocking for a society that has accepted all manner of lliving arrangements to watch Otto, Leo and Gilda fumble through situations in which two at a time betray the third towards a three-way relationship that is -- for them -- the right design for living. The no longer gasp inducing menage à trois with homo-erotic undertones make any revival less a Champagne Cocktail than a Wry Highball. It's a brew that allows audiences to appreciate Coward's deeper and still relevant theme -- the way the bonds of deep affection survive even betrayal; not to mention the way Gilda's constantly shifting affections reflect her need to find fulfillment in her own right rather than as a nurturing presence for two artists.

Unfortunately, the revival now at Williamstown Theatre's Main Stage remains all surfaces and very little depth. Hugh Landwehr' s sleek, gorgeous sets deserve the applause that greets all three even though they require two intermissions that are almost as long as the first and third acts. Candice Donnelly stunning and historically authentic costumes also add to the smashing good looks of the production. But as the sense of "something's missing" dogs the play's animated chatter (specifically, the absence of the third leg of this human 3-legged stool), so something is missing from the performances. The leads simply don't begin to tap into the nuances of Coward's cry for non possessive love and taking pleasure in success.

When in the first act Otto returns to his stylishly shabby Parisian studio to discover that Leo has co-opted him as Gilda's lover, that hurt comes across as just a skin wound which paves the way for Campbell Scott's angry curtain dropping exit line, "So long you two. . .I wish you were dead and in hell!"

Actually, Scott is the best of the three but neither he or Steven Weber (who does have charm and good comic timing on his side) project a smidgen of the unexpressed sexual electricity underlying their friendship. As for Marisa Tomei, she looks great whether in a silk or velvet robe, chic street outfit, or figure-hugging evening gown. If only she projected the depth and aura of a woman without whom neither Otto or Leo can live or work. She appears too focused on the British accent that comes off more shrill than authentic or natural.

Director Gregory Boyd's production admirably recreates the era of double intermissions and curtains coming down between scenes that prevailed when Coward and Lunt and Fontanne appeared as Leo, Otto and Gilda at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theater. However, it might have been refreshing to let these American actors concentrate on developing their characters instead of their Brit-speak.

Unlike Joe Mantello's 2001 revival of Design for the Roundabout Theater organization, Boyd also refrains from making the sexual orientation of the two men more explicit. Considering that Mantello went way overboard in allowing Allan Cumming to radicalize Otto into a blatantly, and at times jarring, homosexual rather than bi-sexual character, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Still, Mr. Boyd would have been well advised to follow today's custom of eliminating one of the old style double intermissions. Given the superficiality of these performances, three hours seems at least half an hour too long and somehow make this less a deeper, darker, more meaningful take on the original, and more aptly fitting the second act's critical evaluation of Leo's play as decidedly thin.

While Kristine Nielsen certainly gets her share of laughs as the very Cowardesque Miss Hodge, the maid in Leo and Gilda's chintz and flower filled London flat, director Boyd allows her to milk those laughs to shameless excess. In the final and best act, when Gilda having followed her head instead of her heart, has a thriving career and is married to Ernest Friedman (Jack Gilpin ably portraying the art dealer -- whose Jewish name may just raise yet another darker issue in this play). It also introduces some welcome secondary characters, especially the always excellent Tom Bloom as a rich older man with what would today be desicribed as a trophy wife (Kathy McCafferty).

This is an undisbutably handsome production, with Coward's songs enlivening the intra-scene pauses. By the time the curtain descended for the final time (not with a Coward song but Cole Porter's "It Was Just One of Those Things"), the audience at the performance I attended generously applauded the actors as well as this production's real stars -- the scenery and the costumes.

Design For Living (Roundabout--2001)
Blithe Spirit
Easy Virtue
Suite In 2 Keys
Present Laughter
Private Lives(London and Broadway)
Tonight at 8:30 Part A --WTF
Tonight at 8:30 Part B --WTF
Waiting In The Wings
Design for Living
By Noël Coward
Directed by Gregory Boyd
Cast: Campbell Scott (Otto), Marisa Tomei (Gilda,)and Steven Weber (Leo); also Tom Bloom (Henry Carver), Jack Gilpin (Ernest Friedman), Sarah Hudnut (Grace Torrence), Tom Lacy (Matthew) , Kathy McCafferty (Helen Carver), Kristine Nielsen (Miss Hodge).
Sets: Hugh Landwehr
Costumes: Candice Donnelly
Lights: Rui Rita
Sound: John Gromada
July 28 to August 8, 2004; opening July 29th
Running Time: 3 hours, includes two 20-minute intermissions-- act one, 30 minutes; act two, 65 minutes; act three, 30 minutes
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Adams Memorial Theatre, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA (413/597-3400)
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Reviewed by Elyse Sommerbased on July 29th matinee performance
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