'Design's' Full Moon and Empty Charms

by Linda Winer
Staff Writer
DESIGN FOR LIVING. By Noel Coward, directed by Joe Mantello. With Alan Cumming, Jennifer Ehle, Dominic West. Sets by Robert Brill, costumes by Bruce Pask, lights by James Vermeulen. Roundabout Theatre Company, 42nd Street west of Broadway, Manhattan. Seen at Tuesday's preview.

FOR MUCH OF the first act of the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of "Design for Living," it is possible to forgive and even enjoy Joe Mantello's wrongheaded production of Noel Coward's subversive and sophisticated three's company comedy of 1933.

Yes, the casting that had looked so audaciously offbeat on paper is surprisingly off-base, and Coward's glamorous trio of erotic adventurers are less childlike here than childish. But the play, a blissfully unapologetic tribute to the occasional inevitability of the equilateral triangle, seems more than capable of withstanding a few questionable style choices from one of our most seriously talented directors.

Of course, that's before Mantello's production-which stars Jennifer Ehle, Alan Cumming and Dominic West-goes deeply off the deep end and civilized disagreements about stylistic niceties are suddenly irrelevant. Finally, the revival hits bottom-or at least exposes it-when Cumming's Otto pulls down his silk pajamas and moons Ernest, the poor fellow who has returned home to find his wife's two former lovers in his loungewear.

This is willful. And wrong, all wrong. Mantello may be trying to scrape some of the gloss off ossified images of Coward's society of gay innuendo. But the abrasion goes beyond mere surface to anachronistic attitude and substance.

Instead of three articulate, clever characters digging beyond the escapist chatter to find fast-talking tenderness and the improbable happy ending of multiple true love, we get clowns whose rebellion can be dismissed as selfish acts by obnoxious little people who won't grow up. Instead of the fun of a talky '30s British romantic comedy, the evening feels long and wordy.

By the time Ehle's Gilda makes the decision to embrace the love she has for both Cumming's Otto, the painter, and West's Leo, the playwright-not to mention the love the men have for her and each other -intelligent fun has been degraded to minor camp.

Thus, we have lost the impact of Coward's liberation from such modern obsessions as success without guilt, pansexual love without possession and the right of people to make civilized fools over one another. Lost, too, is the delirious anticipation of seeing Ehle, who won her Tony Award last season as another independent wife in "The Real Thing," and Cumming, who became a Tony- winning icon for endearing decadence as the emcee in "Cabaret." Cumming does an ill-advised personality flip into Otto, burgeoning portrait painter, seen in this production as somewhere between Pee-wee Herman and Stan Laurel in lipstick. A bottle blond with a pierced eyebrow, this Otto is to Coward what a baby chimp might be to the original Otto, Alfred Lunt. West, an Irish actor with the initial charm of Michael York in the film version of "Cabaret," plays Leo, the newly recognized playwright of glib but perceptive comedie-in other words, the role created by and for Coward.

Ehle is Gilda-originally Lynn Fontanne-the woman who plays bedroom sidekick to both men's careers until she runs off to find herself. She ends up a New York interior decorator, married to the conventional but hardly evil art dealer Ernest (John Cunningham)-an already maligned character turned into paragon and victim by Mantello's bizarre choices for his rivals. Marisa Berenson makes a cameo appearance as a rich New Yorker, with T. Scott Cunningham and Jessica Stone as Coward's blundering, ugly Americans and Jenny Sterlin in a nice spin on the stock suspicious maid.

Robert Brill's set makes magical extremes of Paris bohemia, English posh and American modern, though Bruce Pask's often clumsy costumes work overtime to make silly men look sillier. Coward once said that he had promised himself and the Lunts a stage vehicle for years, but waited until all three could steal the show with equal success. No competition here.