- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

Playwright Noel Coward combined bon mots and nerviness in his 1933 comedy “Design for Living,” a hard-edged jewel of a play stunningly staged at the Shakespeare Theatre by artistic director Michael Kahn, who celebrates the wit and glamour of the piece without sacrificing its serious undertones.

Audacious in its day, “Design” revels in sexual renegades immersed in a menage a trois. At the center of this love triangle is Gilda (Gretchen Egolf, an Erte sketch come to life, but with the wicked tongue of Dorothy Parker), a part-time interior designer and muse to her painter lover, Otto (Tom Story, deceptively decent and cuddly in the role).

They live in romantic bohemian poverty in a garrett in Paris (rendered lovingly right down to the bird droppings on the windows by set designer James Noone), with the free-spirited Gilda eschewing not only marriage, but monogamy. She enjoys a tryst with their mutual friend Leo (Robert Sella, as dapper as Fred Astaire but as cruel as a dictator), a playwright. Meanwhile, Otto and Leo seem to have dabbled in a love that dare not speak its name here and there.

This quasi-autobiographical play — based on the relationship between Mr. Coward, whose homosexuality was known only to his closest friends, and American theater greats Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt — begins with the three artists existing on love, little money and big dreams. Act II finds Leo, now a madly successful playwright, shacked up royally in a swank London town house with Gilda and enjoying the attention of high society. (They even have a housekeeper, the disapproving Miss Hodge, played with hilarious umbrage by Catherine Flye.) Gilda loves Leo, but not her gilded-cage life.

So when the opportunity arises to hop into bed with Otto again, she enthusiastically does so. Her impulse leads to one of the most side-splitting drunk scenes of all time as Leo and Otto get spectacularly blotto on brandy — the bones in their bodies turn to mush in flawless unison with every downed shot — and, true to the laws of drunken logic, it makes perfect sense for them to share a sloppy kiss.



All these sexual shenanigans lead to the aggressively witty third act, set in a Manhattan penthouse so coldly fabulous that it’s like an art-deco mausoleum. Gilda is married to the trio’s older benefactor, art collector Ernest (Kevin Hogan). Bored and brittle, she’s entertaining guests when Otto and Leo show up in immaculate evening dress; their soignee one-liners are as glittering and lacerating as diamond-topped razor blades. After dispensing with the company — “This is the most extraordinary conversation I’ve ever heard,” society matron Grace Torrence (Sherri Edelen) proclaims — the three turn their callous brilliance onto poor Ernest, who doesn’t deserve such treatment, no matter how elegant the language.

The shocking part of “Design for Living” today is not so much the sexual politics but the blithe cruelty of the trio’s behavior. They constantly refer to the fact that they’re “different,” that their relationship is unusually shaped. And because they are artists, they deserve carte blanche for running roughshod over anyone who comes into their path.

The entire play, especially the chafing third act, seems to be an artfully contrived and blatantly self-serving apologia for “the artist’s life,” trumpeting that creative people are above humaneness and honor.

In his devastating portraits of Gilda, Otto and Leo, Mr. Coward suggests that artists are above conventional morality but also are monsters. Beautiful, glittering monsters we love to look at and listen to, so long as we don’t get too close and risk getting bitten.

★★★

WHAT: “Design for Living” by Noel Coward

WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Lansburgh, 450 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 28.

TICKETS: $35.50 to $84.75

PHONE: 202/547-1122

WEB SITE: www.ShakespeareTheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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