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by Margaret Croyden
"Design for Living" by Noel Coward
...A Recipe For Fun?
The Roundabout Theatre Company Production"Design For Living" by Noel Coward, now playing at the new American Airlines Theatre, was written in the thirties, and was considered risque, witty, new, and daring. It expounded, non too subtly, the right of homosexuality, bi-sexuality and menage a trois as a way of life, as a choice despite the contempt of the bourgeoisie. Lets face it. In England, a man could get arrested for being homosexual (as Sir John Gielgud was), and let's not forget that English "justice" jailed Oscar Wilde and ruined life for having a male lover. So "Design for Living" for its time was timely.
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
Opened March 15, 2001
Reviewed March 20,2001 by Margart Croyden
It tells the story of a painter Otto (Alan Cumming) and his best friend Leo, a successful playwright (Dominic West) and their mutual flame, Gilda (Jennifer Ehle). Both men are her lovers and later are themselves lovers: a triangle of bisexuality and homosexuality, but it takes over two and a half hours to develop. Played brilliantly--if critics were right--by the celebrated theatrical couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and by none other than Noel Coward himself, the play was thought to be actually about the three of them. And it may very well have been. Certainly it was no secret that Noel Coward was a homosexual (though not publicly acknowledged). All of which may have added a certain intrigue to the production.
But what may have been fascinating and gossipy to audiences in the thirties is plainly dated today. The language with its supposedly Noel Coward wit is surprisingly cliche ridden in its humor, and pedestrian in its attempts at serious philosophy. No longer are we shocked by promiscuity, bi-sexual, or homosexual stories, or by over-written bourgeois villains who rant about unconventional relationships.
All of which makes "Design for Living," directed by Joe Mantello, with a heavy hand, surprisingly dull, and so badly cast that the so-called witty talk becomes long winded and tedious. If the producers thought they would shock the audience by this revival, they should have another look at their neighborhood movies, or turn on television. Noel Coward may have been a revolutionary for his time, but his time is over. Everyone has come out of the closet.
The cast is particularly miscast--especially the talented Alan Cumming, the darling of "Cabaret." Playing the bi-sexual Otto, a role completley unsuited for him, he is unbelievable as a sexual dynamo. He is too small, too campy, too neuter for man or woman, and obviously gay right from the start. Marching around in his underwear in the second act, exposing his bottom at one point and continually displaying his legs spread out, he is forever reacting with comic mugging. As Otto, he has slept with Gilda (every act the lady sleeps with each man until the two men make it together), but it s hard to believe that a fierce sexual attraction exists. With his bleached blond hair and outlandish costumes, Mr. Cumming seems still to be in "Cabaret"
Mr. West as Leo is only a trifle more commanding as a personality but unable to give the role any sense of irony or archness, and is no lover either. In the second act, after the two men have become lovers, Leo is dressed like a minor Oscar Wilde, hair slicked down and ruffled collar, a stereotype of a certain gay men, while Otto appears on stage wearing lipstick and eye shadow. Why, one wonders? We did get the point.
Jennifer Ehle as Gilda is just like the girl next door. She is too ordinary, even though obviously neurotic, to have such sway over these two men. She has not got the delivery, the tone, the sophistication, the mystery and the allure such a woman must have, if we are to believe the plot. She is badly costumed with awful gray clothes which emphasize her bust (too large for the stage) and underscores her colorless, almost lifeless performance. She throws away her lines most of the time, and often she is barely audible. Gilda should be more of a Garbo type, an inscrutable woman, an enigma, a compelling, but not obvious sexual creature capable of winning any man, and holding her own in a world of painters and writers. None of this is evident in Ms. Ehle's performance. In fact, none of the actors know how to play comedy of manners and the director Joe Mantello is no help. He chose to make statements. But then again, maybe the expected Noel Coward wit is not so witty. After all the play's the thing. And this play is not. [Croyden]
Margaret Croyden's most recent book is a memoir"In The Shadow of the Flame: Three Journeys," (Continuum Publishing). Her pieces on theater appear frequently here and in the pages of "The New York Times."
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