Design for Living
You’ve worked yourself into a frenzy of sophistication,” Leo tells Gilda, the pair of them two thirds of a frenzied, sophisticated trio of soigne bohemians in Noel Coward’s blithe 1932 comedy Design for Living. The geometry goes like this: Gilda loves Otto, a painter, but she also loves Otto’s best friend Leo, a playwright. Leo loves Gilda, but he also loves Otto. Otto loves Gilda, and Leo, too. Sometimes this self-congratulatory affection leads to bed, but mostly to talk about how marvelous and maddening it all is — so very Jules and Jim by way of Will & Grace.
So very Noel Coward. Design for Living is an eruption of suavity and subtextual sex held aloft by little more than an agreement between playwright and audience not to look down, lest we comment tediously on the lack of ground below. Leo, Gilda, and Otto (and Ernest the art dealer, the bourgeois third man Coward cavalierly alternates as moral ballast and bore), after all, frolic in a cascade of smart dialogue that goes best with cigarettes, brandy, silk dressing gowns, and a societal agreement that men do not smooch in public. (The playwright himself, an avatar of urbanity, starred as Leo in the original 1933 production, triangulating wittily with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.)
In 2001, by contrast, in the crisp, brightly striped new Broadway production directed by Joe Mantello, Design for Living looks very designed for modern sensibility, indeed: Funny, clever, Cowardly, but also touchingly…hysterical. (With a kick: Men smooch — because they can!) In this chicly appointed revival, Alan Cumming, Jennifer Ehle, and Dominic West play Otto, Gilda, and Leo, and a more divinely urbane cast is hard to imagine. Ehle arrives, glowing and peachy, following her Tony success as a man swapper in The Real Thing; the Tony-winning Cumming, who re-created the role of the emcee in the hit revival of Cabaret, plays Otto with his usual pansexual flirtatiousness; and the British actor West, with his Arrow Shirt Man good looks, brings to Leo the same who is that? energy he unleashed opposite Sandra Bullock in 28 Days.
Don’t look down, don’t look down, we tell ourselves, but how can we not? Ehle cycles so regularly between tinkling laughter and high-pitched distraction that Gilda veers toward pillhood. (Gilda may be the gal all the guys love, but Coward is content to adore her sloppily as the fickle ”idea” of a woman.) Cumming, meanwhile, that twinkly Pan, with his spiky bleached hair (and eyebrow ring, which might have amused the playwright), assumes the pose of a playful boy — Sean Hayes’ Jack to Eric McCormack’s Will, in inevitable sitcom terms. At least West plays Leo with the makings of a grown man. But in this proudly polymorphous Design, when the three bestest friends collapse in a tangle of laughter and fondling at final curtain, the sophisticated adults in this very sophisticated-looking production resemble nothing so much as kids in the living room on The Real World.