Noel's 'Living' Is Dead in Revival

DESIGN FOR LIVING By Noel Coward. With Alan Cumming, Jennifer Ehle, Dominic West, John Cunningham, Marisa Berenson and others. Directed by Joe Mantello. Sets by Robert Brill. Costumes by Bruce Pask. At the American Airlines Theater.

Imagine Jerry Lee Lewis playing Mozart, and you have a rough idea of the Roundabout's revival of Noel Coward's "Design for Living."

The 1933 play was intended as a soufflé that Coward could perform with his friends the Lunts, and all were masters of light comedy, now apparently an unobtainable commodity.

"Design" is about two men and a woman who are infatuated with each other. In the first act, Gilda, who has been living in sordid digs in Paris with the painter Otto, leaves him for Leo, a successful playwright - though it is clear that Leo and Otto are as mad for one another as they are for her.

In the second act, Otto wins Gilda back from Leo. In the third, Gilda, who has married the rich but stuffy art dealer Ernest, dumps him to live with both men.

In a way, the trio are very modern, because the main object of their affection is themselves. They switch partners effortlessly because their main quest is for self-gratification, the partners being mere accessories. If "Design for Living" has darker undercurrents than many Coward plays, it is because of the erotic relationship between the two men.

Homosexuality was provocative in 1933. It was, after all, a crime in England almost until the playwright's death 40 years later. Interestingly, "Design" was not produced in London until 1939, six years after it was done in New York.

Coward did not address sexual matters explicitly. He focused, rather, on the trio's abhorrence of conformity. But these days, when practically everyone wears a ring in his nose, nonconformity is hardly an issue. Nor is homosexuality.

All of which makes "Design for Living" even harder to do than it was originally. The elements of shock and titillation, which provided dramatic tension, are missing.

Into this vacuum, Joe Mantello, the director, has thrown shtick. When, for example, Otto, played by Alan Cumming, first sees the long-absent Leo (Dominic West), he leaps onto him, wrapping his legs around West's waist. An act later, when Otto reclaims Gilda, he does so by somersaulting across a sofa.

In my book, this falls under the heading of acrobatics rather than acting. Cumming's performance is also full of the boyish pouts and the smirking he displayed to greater effect three years ago in "Cabaret." (Does he, by the way, insist in his contract on showing us his tushie?) There is a coolness to Jennifer Ehle's Gilda, suggesting that her actions stem from calculation rather than helpless spontaneity. West makes Leo the most innocent of the lot, the only one capable of simple affection. Perhaps if there were less cavorting and more believable emotional ties between the three, the play might not seem so strained.

John Cunningham is good as the stolid Ernest, though his sputtering outrage at the end seems overdone, given how outrageously the other three have behaved from the start. Marisa Berenson, who has a cameo as a society woman, has less presence on stage than she did on the screen. Jenny Sterlin practically steals the show in the small role of a shocked maid.

Robert Brill's sets also seem overdone, though Gilda's New York apartment has an imposing spareness. Only Bruce Pask's costumes have the easy elegance that ought to characterize the whole production.