One happy triangle

Friday, March 16, 2001


DESIGN FOR LIVING: A Broadway play revival, presented by the Roundabout Theater Company at the American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd St. Written by Noel Coward. With Alan Cumming, Jennifer Ehle, and Dominic West. Directed by Joe Mantello. $40 to $65. (212) 719-1300.

Staff Writer

The enduring image of Noel Coward as a suave, wittily entertaining writer shortchanges him. His plays are -- or can be -- deeper than that, more dangerous, as is demonstrated by the Roundabout Theater Company's vivid revival of "Design for Living."

The 1932 play is often performed as a stylish, bubbly comedy about two men's rivalry for a woman, who can't decide between them. That surface approach avoids looking at what it's really about, which is an argument for absolute freedom, for the hedonistic right to pursue happiness no matter how selfish or outrageous it might seem.

The revival, which opened Thursday night at the American Airlines Theater, is bright and funny and very sleek-looking, but its greatest success comes from taking Coward's ideas seriously.

Gilda (Jennifer Ehle) loves Otto (Alan Cumming), a painter, and Leo (Dominic West), a playwright. And the two men madly love her -- and each other.

As the story travels from a dark, expressionistic-looking Paris apartment-cum-art studio to an amusingly elegant London flat and an even grander New York penthouse, the back-and-forth relationships follow a pattern, with Gilda turning to the man who needs her the most -- and devastating the other one.

And then, as both Otto and Leo become enormously successful, and Gilda feels unneeded and unfulfilled, she flees, marrying Ernest (John Cunningham), an aging art dealer, and resuming her career as an interior decorator. But the trio can't bear to be apart, and when Otto and Leo show up on her doorstep, Gilda casually and rather cruelly dismisses Ernest, and the threesome are left embracing each other and laughing, giving in to the fate that always beckoned them.

There's a snobbism in Coward, and "Design for Living," with its doltish supporting characters, could be presented merely as a putdown of conventionality. But director Joe Mantello goes for something more essential, as the characters try to discover what they really want, what will make them happy.

At the center of that is Ehle, the remarkable -- and remarkably attractive -- young actress who won a Tony last season for her equally spirited performance in "The Real Thing."

While being thoroughly charming, Ehle shows us the restless, troubled woman beneath Gilda's joyful, impetuous exterior. Gilda is torn between her urge to nurture and love Otto and Leo -- she doesn't attempt to make a permanent choice between them -- and to find who she is and what would fulfill her. Amid the glittery chaos, Ehle makes the dilemma matter. She provides the dramatic grounding for the play's headlong, fizzy comedy.

Cumming, best known, of course, for his award-winning portrayal of the emcee in the revival of "Cabaret," has an enormously touching moment in the first act, when Otto comes home and deduces that Gilda has cheated on him with Leo.

After that, as Otto becomes successful, he becomes more carefree, and Cumming is very funny, providing all kinds of delicious comic inflections, although sometimes edging the character into cartoonish excess.

West, whose theater career has been in England, is a sturdy, amusing Leo, completely holding his own with his two co-stars.

In addition to the strong direction and acting, the revival has a wonderfully distinctive look, with Robert Brill's scenery presenting delightful exaggerations of 1930s styles, while newcomer Bruce Pask's costumes have an elegant extravagance, particularly the men's.

"Design for Living" is not as neatly-made as some other Coward plays. Some parts could have been pruned. But it's still an exuberant, provocative play, and this production makes the most of its virtues.