'Design for Living' Embraces Pain


NEW YORK (AP) - There's a price to pay for being ``glib, over-articulate, and amoral,'' the three adjectives playwright Noel Coward once used to describe the trio of rarefied creatures who float through his ``Design for Living,'' doing damage to each other and themselves. Doing damage - and loving every minute of it.

That price is delineated with startling clarity in director Joe Mantello's dark, deep, and enormously satisfying revival of Coward's comedy, which the Roundabout Theatre Company opened Thursday on Broadway.

Originally done in New York in 1933 with Coward, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne in the leading roles, ``Design for Living'' has gotten a reputation over the years of being frivolous and a bit provocative. It does champion its pleasure-seeking leads, a threesome who embrace heterosexuality, homosexuality, and all points in-between. Yet the play is quite serious, especially when its characters are at their most foolish, a quality Mantello exploits.

Otto is a painter, who, as the play opens, is on the cusp of becoming a success. He loves Gilda, a would-be decorator for rich folk. She loves him, too, but also is enamored of Leo, a budding playwright. Leo and Otto were together before Gilda entered the picture, and they still have feelings for each other.

By the end of the first act, Otto has had a fierce row with the other two and stormed off. Act 2 begins with Leo reveling in prosperity. He's the author of a hit play running in London's West End and living with Gilda. Leo returns and, after an evening of heavy drinking, resumes his friendship with Otto.

By the final act, Gilda, who couldn't deal with her pals' success, has fled to New York and hooked up with Ernest, a stuffy, yet wealthy art dealer. Ernest represents everything that's sober-sided and proper about the world. Of course, he must get his comeuppance at the end of play. It's an uncomfortable moment of callousness by our three hedonists, who, to their credit, at least realize they are doing something distasteful.

Mantello has orchestrated the couplings and uncouplings with ease. He has been helped by three showy actors - Alan Cumming, Jennifer Ehle, and Dominic West - who know how to handle the pleasure and the pain.

Cumming's Otto, dyed blond hair done up in a vaguely punk style, suggests a cross between an imp and a satyr with a bit of a downtown club kid thrown in for good measure. Cumming, often wearing a slyly naughty smile, negotiates Otto's tantrums and philosophical insights with remarkable fluidity. ``Life is for living, first and foremost,'' Otto proudly states, and he does his best to live up to that credo.

Leo, modeled after Coward himself, is nicely spoofed by the playwright, who has great fun in one scene sending up critics of his work. West oozes debonair charm, and his chiseled features and brawny build contrast nicely with Cumming's slender frame.

Ehle, a Tony winner for her role in the revival of ``The Real Thing'' has the most difficult role. Gilda is the play's catalyst, precipitating the breakups and the reunions. The character is the uncertain soul of the play, and Ehle portrays that indecisiveness with considerable skill. Gilda's anguish is very real, something the actress doesn't downplay.

The supporting cast is spotty, but John Cunningham gets audience sympathy - not an easy task - giving Ernest more to do than just moralize. Jenny Sterlin scores a lot of laughs as a dour, suspicious maid.

Designer Robert Brill's exemplary settings are larger than life. From Otto's cluttered Parisian art studio to Leo's garish London flat to Gilda's art deco New York apartment, they are as outlandish and as over-the-top as their inhabitants.

The title, ``Design for Living,'' suggests a studious handbook for getting through life. However, Coward's play is anything but. It is a funny, yet cautionary tale about living the high life. He seems to be saying that the frivolity is worth it, even if occasionally you have to fall back to Earth. And, as Mantello's production points out so theatrically, just be aware of the consequences.