'Design for Living': A Scandal in Bohemia

By BEN BRANTLEY

A fatal cloud hangs over the mirthless mnage trois that is currently sulking and brooding for your entertainment at the American Airlines Theater. Oh sure, these poor, doomed lovers occasionally do madcap things like turning somersaults or prancing around in their underwear. But you can sense that they'll never be happy, with or without one another. Soon enough - don't you know it? - they'll be drifting arm in arm down suicide lane.

If you think of the Roundabout Theater Company production that opened last night as "Design for Dying," you might be able to make some sense of it. But you should be aware that the title of record is still "Design for Living." It is also rumored to be the same play by Nol Coward that, when it opened on Broadway in 1933, was described in these pages by Brooks Atkinson as a work that "transmutes artificial comedy into delight."

Delight is not the watchword of this latest revival, although you might be led into thinking so by the advertising campaign that features the evening's seductive stars - Alan Cumming, Jennifer Ehle and Dominic West - looking drunk on sexual attraction and attractiveness. Be advised that onstage they never approach the giddiness of that photographic moment. They tend to be about as gay, in the Deco-era sense of the word, as the martyrs to love in a Fannie Hurst novel.

"Design for Living" was a huge hit almost 70 years ago with Coward, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne playing the haute bohemians who can't live without one another. Its explicit suggestion that three is comfy erotic company instead of a crowd was so shocking at the time that Atkinson warned off audience members who might "pull a long moral face" over Coward's "breezy fandango." Atkinson also shrewdly made the point that style, not substance, was the issue. "When `Design for Living' sounds serious, you wish impatiently that Mr. Coward would cut the cackle and come to the main business, which is his brand of satyr comedy," he wrote.

Any production that features Mr. Cumming, who found fame brilliantly reinventing the decadent M.C. of "Cabaret," would automatically seem to have a leg up in satyr appeal. Yet earnestness trumps sexiness again and again in this "Design," which has been directed with an uncharacteristically slow and shaky hand by Joe Mantello.

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.

Mr. West, who might have stepped from a Ralph Lauren ad, has plenty of intensity but little specific personality.

Mr. Cumming, who has a few lovely moments of drollery, surprisingly plays Otto as a schlemiel, something like the childlike comic losers of silent movies. All three central performances are, on their own terms, consistent and polished, but they rarely connect.

This is a dangerous gap. For all their cauterwauling about the perils of success, the artists of "Design for Living" make up their own aristocracy of glamour. Who better to have represented that elite in the 1930's than Coward, Lunt and Fontanne?

These characters are brighter, wittier and more theatrical than anyone around them, and of course they have more fun. Take away their hedonistic spirit and charisma, and they turn into snobby whiners with a disproportionate sense of their own importance.

It's not a good sign when you start to sympathize with the bourgeois targets of their barbs. (The victims are nicely played here by Jessica Stone, Marisa Berenson, T. Scott Cunningham, Jenny Sterlin, Saxon Palmer and the indispensable John Cunningham.)

As for the homosexual dimension, Mr. Mantello seems to have borrowed a leaf or two from Sean Mathias's much-debated London production of 1995.

Again, when the boys invade Gilda's Manhattan apartment in the last act, Otto is wearing lipstick and eyeshadow. (How shocking!) And again, Otto and Leo drunkenly fall into each other's arms in ways that obviously go beyond the bounds of friendship.

The most authentic-feeling moment in the whole evening comes when Otto (in unflattering, baggy boxer shorts), lying platonically in Leo's arms, suddenly turns wistful with sexual longing for his chum. "Now what?" he asks quietly.

There's an electricity here that feels joltingly true, even as it is false to the central premise of the play. What the scene suggests is that Otto and Leo have finally discovered their true feelings for each other, and that Gilda really is, as she had feared, the superfluous figure in the triangle.

"What's in it for her?" the woman with whom I saw the play asked irritably afterward. Perhaps three is a crowd, after all. But to believe that is to redesign "Design for Living" so that its whole brittle structure collapses.



UPPIN CUMMING
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