Bubbly, frothy, witty, charming—that’s what gay used to mean back in the days when Noël Coward was the gayest playwright around, in both senses of the word. Along with Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, Design for Living is one of Coward’s best-known plays. Written in 1932, it has a racy reputation as a high-spirited comedy about two men and a woman who wind up in a ménage à trois.
What’s most intriguing about the Broadway revival of Design for Living is that director Joe Mantello casts aside the superficial ideas we have about Coward’s work and grapples with the play itself, which is more complicated and less bubbly than its reputation would lead us to believe.
Otto and Leo and Gilda are old friends. Act 1 finds Gilda (Jennifer Ehle) sharing a starving-artist garret in Paris with Otto, a painter (a dyed-blond Alan Cumming). When she falls into bed with Leo (Dominic West) for the first time, it precipitates a breakup with Otto, and she moves with Leo to London, where he’s a rising-star playwright. In Act 2, Otto shows up in London—dressed for success in a red coat, looking like Boy George—where he and Gilda fall back into bed together. Confused, Gilda runs off to America with Ernest (John Cunningham), a middle-aged art dealer who’s her confidant. Act 3 takes place in New York, where Gilda has married Ernest and finally established a career for herself as an interior decorator. Inevitably, Otto and Leo show up in her gleaming chrome private elevator to remind her what rowdy joys exist outside the world of social propriety. To Ernest’s fuming disapproval, the three of them fall into an infantile gigglefest as the curtain falls.
Mantello’s decision to play this with more depth than an episode of Three’s Company turns out to be a mixed blessing. On one hand, it makes for a fresh attack on the play and keeps it grounded in reality. Although the idea of a bisexual love triangle sounds pretty kicky, anyone who’s tried it knows that it can be an arduous negotiation emotionally and psychologically, and this production doesn’t skip over the bumps along the way. On the other hand, Coward wrote the play as an entertainment for himself to perform with the famous Broadway team Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and for all its talk about flouting convention, it doesn’t quite hold up as serious drama.
Cumming, who dazzled Broadway two years ago as the emcee in Cabaret, is delightful to watch, though everything about him (especially his piercings) raises the question of what period the play’s set in. West, a British heartthrob making his Broadway debut, matches Cumming in bravely making Otto and Leo more physical and more faggy than they’ve probably ever been. Ehle, a wonderful actress who won a Tony last year for The Real Thing, dwells so heavily on Gilda’s brooding self-hatred and stifled creativity that she seems to be playing Hedda Gabler. It doesn’t really make sense, it’s not dramatically satisfying, and the sexual chemistry with West and Cumming is decidedly cool. But it’s definitely a different way of looking at Noël Coward.
Shewey is the editor of Out Front: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Plays, published by Grove Press.