'Design for Living' still delivers sexy shocks

By Elysa Gardner
NEW YORK -- Ah, to be young, in love and morally apathetic. That is how some will view the lot of Gilda, the saucy heroine of Noel Coward's romantic comedy Design for Living. A sometime interior decorator, Gilda doesn't need any man, she insists -- but she wants two of them. One is Otto, a sensitive painter who is mad about her. The other is Leo, a dashing playwright who adores her. Otto and Leo also adore each other, by the way. In fact, the men were apparently quite close when Gilda met them, if you get my drift.

Nearly 70 years after Coward wrote Design, the play retains its ability to shock and scandalize. The Roundabout Theatre Company revival ( * * * out of four), which opened Thursday at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre, is bound to disturb some theatergoers -- and not just those who consider bisexual ménages à trois too, well, out there.

The Roundabout's lush, superbly acted production makes all too clear how Gilda, and Coward, underestimate the damage that a fickle, feckless heart can inflict. If Design is one of the playwright's wittiest and most progressive works, it is also one in which his penchant for cavalier glibness is most prominent. Never mind that Gilda's inability to be faithful actually creates great pain for Otto and Leo -- not to mention an older bourgeois gentleman who provides her with emotional and financial support, only to be tossed out of his own apartment in the end. Artists are different, darling, Coward assures us repeatedly; and anyway, human suffering can be ''teddibly'' droll, so long as it takes place in an elegant setting, with plenty of cigarettes and liquor on hand.

Jennifer Ehle, winner of last year's Tony Award for best actress in a play, triumphs as Gilda, capturing the character's cool wit and feral sensuality, her frustrating self-absorption and rueful self-flagellation. Fellow Tony winner Alan Cumming imbues Otto with a delightful mix of impishness and innocence, while Dominic West is at once playful and bracingly virile as Leo, his partner and foil.

Though this dynamic trio dominates the show, there are several fine supporting performances. John Cunningham is tart and touching as Ernest, the long-suffering art dealer who tries to shield Gilda from her destructive impulses. Marisa Berenson is convincingly imperious and vapid as Grace, a pre-Tom Wolfe social X-ray, and Jessica Stone is amusingly dim as Helen, a budding Grace.

Thanks to these players, director Joe Mantello and scenic designer Robert Brill, Design is a scrumptious production -- even if the play leaves something of a sour aftertaste.