The latest entry of The Roundabout Theatre Company, at their Broadway "haunt," the new American Airlines Theatre, a revival of NoŽl Coward's "Design for Living", doesn't really work. A play from the 30s that is pretty much explicitly (for its time) about a threesome, it demands a real flair for high-comedy of manners, as well as a lightness of touch and cast. Under Joe Mantello's direction, it has only limited amounts of either.

For the most part, Mantello has directed as if he were dealing in realism-not kitchen-sink realism, exactly, but comedy veritť, nonetheless. This skews the values of the piece, makes the three leads (Alan Cumming, Dominic West and Jennifer Ehle) seem a little distasteful in their menage-and makes a square character, like the old family friend who briefly becomes the woman's husband (John Cunningham), seem reasonable and sympathetic.

As to the leads, Jennifer Ehle is charismatic and just right for the role, but the costumes (Bruce Pask) put a distracting emphasis on her cleavage (and lest this seem a dubious observation, the woman who was my evening's companion felt the same). As the writer, Dominic West is unexceptional, but fine-and would be finer were it not for the fellow playing the artist, Alan Cumming, who throws the entire configuration out of whack.

Despite the implied homo-erotic relationship the men have, that's something that occurs in the play's second act, and it needs to be a bit of a surprise (even if intellectually we know it's coming, emotionally it needs to be a new level, a catharsis, a breakthrough of sorts). In the last Broadway revival, the writer was played by Raul Julia and the artist by Frank Langella-not only very lusty and very male types, but exuberantly in their own sphere (as members of this trio must seem to be-there can be no question that they belong together and are diminished when apart). But Mr. Cumming's feyness is so pronounced as to compromise any illusion of his being drawn to the woman too-or vice versa. (At a crucial point, in the moment before he and Ms. Ehle charge into a hungry clinch, having been apart for 18 months, he backs away from her as if uncomfortable, even though having an advantage any hetero male would press...it's an extremely telling bit of [I assume] unintentional blocking.) Aside from Mr. Cummings' boyish voice and effeminate mannerisms, there's the question of his blond-highlighted punk hairstyle and eyebrow ring. Perhaps the wisdom of the production was: oh, he's an artist-let this represent his idiosyncrasy in a more conservative time-but it only comes off as anachronism, for all that. Add to this a brief bit of bare-ass mooning he does in act two and the suspension of disbelief evaporates completely...the very naughtiness that worked to his favor in "Cabaret" is-here-his, and the play's, enemy.

The production isn't a mess, or a disgrace...it is, rather, one of those extremely polished evenings that keeps feeling wrong in one small way after another until all the mistakes begin to add up...



UPPIN CUMMING
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