Design for Living Review

by Adam Feldman
Does any actor working today laugh as persuasively, or as infectiously, as Alan Cumming? In Joe Mantello's smashing production of Nöel Coward's Design for Living, Cumming gets to run the whole mirthful gamut, from sly giggle to shameless roar. If his playful, loosey-goosey persona initially seems an unusual fit for Coward's well-starched dialogue, almost immediately it seems utterly natural, indeed nearly perfect, as if this is what the play had been calling for all along. Cumming gives a childlike bounce and pleasure to everything he does, and the effect is utterly disarming; he is never malign, only naughty or mischievous, never sad so much as pouty. When Cumming is on stage, lighting seems almost superfluous; you get the feeling he could brighten the theater with just the twinkle in his eyes.

There is also, in Design for Living, a definite twinkle in his toes, which is wholly appropriate to the play and Mantello's vision of it. Cumming plays Otto, one third of an unconventional romantic arrangement that one unsympathetic observer refers to as a "disgusting, three-sided erotic hotchpotch." The other two participants are Gilda, played with forceful poise by the lovely Jennifer Ehle, and Leo, convincingly rendered by the strapping Dominic West. All three are bohemians of sorts-Otto is a painter, Leo a playwright, Gilda an interior designer of independent means-which may have made their ménage more palatable to audiences in 1932, when the play was originally written. (We tolerate things in our artists that might be frowned upon in our bankers.) Not until the finale, however, does the tripartite romance come to full flower; prior to that, our three heroes are embroiled in an emotionally fraught game of musical beds, cunningly structured like a miniature version of Schnitzler's La Ronde.

Gilda is with Otto. Then Gilda is with Leo. Then Otto is with Leo. This third, more "controversial" leg is only suggested in the script, but the ambiguities that were necessary in Coward's day have become superfluous, and Mantello's staging tactfully removes the closet door. To quote one happy character: "Oh, it was gay. Deliriously gay." Such double entendres are all but inevitable; similarly, Coward's carefully coded defenses of the trio no longer need explication. When Gilda's outraged, well-named friend Ernest (John Cunningham) attacks their decency, their response is simple: "We have our own decency, we have our own ethics." Leo, Otto, and Gilda simply don't fit in with the morality of their day, so they choose to ignore it. Their relationship is neither more nor less than what makes them happy, and needs no further justification.

Coward was at the peak of his powers when he wrote Design for Living, and his dialogue sparkles with crisp wit. Although his English reticence occasionally makes the play's sexual dynamics seem a bit stuffy ("I want to make love to you very badly indeed"), such moments are more than balanced by the play's liberal, not to say libertine, attitudes toward sexual convention. Mantello's direction maintains a high level of liveliness and intelligence; only in the last two scenes, set in New York, does the pace begin to flag, with the introduction of a number of irrelevant new characters. (One of them is Marisa Berenson, elegantly slender as ever but sounding a bit thin as well.) The play soon recovers from this slight dip, and ends on a jolly note.

In addition to its excellent cast, Design for Living boasts design to die for. Robert Brill's expansive set is full of quirky angles and details, capturing both the careless clutter of Otto's Parisian studio and the chilly good taste of Leo's London flat. The art-deco glamour of Ernest's New York apartment, with its tall white corkscrew staircase and impossibly lush yellow-green drapes, is breathtaking. Bruce Pask's costumes are equally astute. The outrageous get-ups sported by Leo and Otto in New York (zebra-print shoes, a bejeweled ascot) may be a tad too showy even for them, but Gilda's satiny purple-gray gown in the same scene is absolutely ravishing; Ehle looks like she just emerged from one of Tamara de Lempicka's monumentalizing deco portraits. Like the grand, refurbished Selwyn Theatre it currently occupies, Design for Living bustles with new life. Mantello and his cast have made what could have been an old-fashioned ménage ŕ trois seem fresh as a three-leaf clover.