BACK STAGE WEST
Oct. 16, 1997
at A Noise Within
Conceived as a three-way star vehicle for his friends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne and himself, Noel Coward's Design for Living seems, on the surface, a thin, attenuated confection: three more or less plotless acts of chatty variations on the one-note theme of a bisexual triangle (he loves, he loves, and she loves). In short, what was no doubt a sumptuous acting feast for Coward and the Lunts wouldn't appear to be a play for the ages.
But then, as Design for Living proves in its brilliant, dizzyingly contrarian manner, appearances are deceptive, nigh corrosive: "Squirming with archness" is how one character describes herself early on. That would be Gilda (Jenna Cole), a decorator caught between the internecine affections of the glad-handing painter Otto (Francois Giroday) and the faintly pompous playwright Leo (Art Manke), and it is such moments of lacerating self-awareness that give us some clue what Coward is up to: a black-comic ode to romantic love, a poison-pen valentine of which he gladly partakes himself.
The play's three acts unfold a bit like a classic drawing-room comedy, following the trio of artists over a period of some years as they trade their way up in their chosen fields--and a bit like an absurdly inverted La Ronde, where the joke is that it's the same three people over and over. In the course of its globe-trotting cohabitations, Coward scores plenty of marks on society, both the political and the country club kind, on the moral relativity of social conventions, on science vs. superstition--the usual trappings of a smart, urbane comedy of the 1930s.
But it's so much smarter than that, and this is both the play's genius and the secret success of director Sabin Epstein's bitterly delicious production: Coward isn't particularly interested in "society," and despite its prescriptive title, Design for Living is not a triumphal liberationist play, gay or otherwise. What Coward dramatizes so movingly and unflinchingly, if peroratively, is that the gnarliest human politics aren't social but emotional. Mores, schmores--Design for Living is about the jealous, untamed province of the heart.
Epstein doesn't have stars in the leads. He has better than that: real actors for whom this is not a power-steering vehicle but a rich text they can get firing on a lot of cylinders. As Otto, Giroday is a grand, Jack Buchanan-esque sad sack charmer, propped up by quips and a sneaky kind of poise. Manke's Leo is beguilingly feline if a bit over-starched. As an officious art dealer who functions as little more than a foil for the trio, Mitchell Edmonds sketches a familiarly understated fussbudget, and Ann Marie Lee wrings some gruff humor from a small maid's part.
But the evening properly belongs to Cole--who, for starters, is stunning in Alex Jaeger's sumptuous period costumes, and who somehow manages to bring classical heft to Gilda without weighing down her brittle, glittering surface. Epstein pulls off a similarly unlikely balancing act: Luxuriantly appointed by Anna Pasquale's sets and Lisa Berntsen's props, his production is as plush as it is uncompromising, as nuanced as it is brutal--a nearly perfect realization of Coward's vision of true love being not for the faint of heart.
"Design for Living," presented by and at A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Oct. 10-Nov. 23. (818) 546-1924.