Design For Living

Theatre Review by Thomas Burke
Design for Living, which opened last night at the Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre, is regarded, along with Private Lives and Hay Fever, as one of Noel Coward's enduring, great plays. One can imagine the gasps and laughter - nervous and otherwise - which must have greeted its 1933 debut on Broadway starring husband and wife Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne and Coward himself as a trio of decadent artists who travel from London to Paris to New York in search of true love, a search which resolves itself by this design in a gay, sophisticated ménage à trois.

Design for Living is, in many ways, just as startling as it was almost 70 years ago. Although reports of the original production indicate that Otto (Alan Cumming) and Leo (Dominic West) didn't kiss and fondle each other as enthusiastically or frequently as they do in this revival, Joe Mantello has remained completely true to the play, Coward's darkest and most emotionally satisfying comedy. Mantello has given us an honest, beautiful and lavish production in which Alan Cumming, Jennifer Ehle, and Dominic West bedazzle, astonish, and delight us with performances which would have pleased Coward himself.

After his Tony winning turn in Cabaret, Alan Cumming's vulnerable, petulant, childishly innocent, and ultimately endearing performance as Otto should come as no surprise. After her Tony winning turn in The Real Thing, Jennifer Ehle's emotionally anguished, verbally supple, and almost overpowering performance as the catalyst Gilda is a revelation. Dominic West admirably completes Coward's triangle with a sophisticated and aggressive performance which provides the necessary and exquisite counterpoint.

John Cunningham makes the repressed art dealer Ernest more of a well rounded victim than one would have imagined possible. The rest of the cast, particularly Jenny Sterling as Miss Hodge, have brief moments in which they shine.

Good, quality revivals of Noel Coward's greatest plays are rare. With this production, the Roundabout Theatre Company has given us what I won't hesitate to call their best work ever. To really experience what Coward as a playwright was all about, this Design for Living is a must see.