Cigarette holders, silk dressing gowns, brandy snifters, stiff upper lips, deco for days: Noel Coward’s Design for Living is about as mannered a comedy of manners as exists in the canon, so it’s refreshing to find it feeling down-to-earth and even a bit cuddly in Michael Kahn’s staging at the Lansburgh Theatre.
A chronicle of tempestuous relations amongst three young bohemians—playwright Leo, portraitist Otto, and their mutual muse Gilda—Design was written by Coward as a starring vehicle for himself and that golden couple of Broadway, the Lunts. Also as a playfully pointed, mid-Depression rumination on the emotional price of success. His protagonists—thirtysomething adolescents stumbling eagerly into fame and fortune—are as full of themselves as they are of joie de vivre, and they’re woefully unprepared for the consequences when their little love triangle flops onto each of its sides in turn.
That triangle—considered shocking enough in 1932 that British censors blocked a West End production for seven years—can’t be expected to raise many eyebrows today. But the plot’s machinations are still fun, especially when designer James Noone has been given the resources to augment them with a little 1930s design porn. He brings up the curtain on a spectacularly shabby Parisian garret, all streaked glass and light, then trumps it first with wood-paneled, heavily draped, marble-columned deco in London, and then with chromed, glittering, structural deco in New York. Glorious overkill throughout—hell, his floral arrangments are a show in themselves.
Amidst the splendor, Kahn does what he can to make the free-spirited twerps at the play’s center come across less as egocentric monsters than as bright-eyed, overgrown children: Robert Sella as Leo (the part Coward wrote for himself) nattering about his own reviews and positively reveling in self-pity, Tom Story’s puppyish Otto ever ready to nurse wounds that haven’t yet been inflicted, and Gretchen Egolf’s Gilda flitting coquettishly between them.
I confess I was initially puzzled about what Leo and Otto see in Gilda; she’s too uncomfortable in her own skin to be easy to cozy up to. Egolf sure makes her ravishing. The audience gasps when costumer Robert Perdziola sheathes her in shimmering green silk—but for a time she doesn’t have much to define her beyond her oft-remarked allure. It’s when she’s allowed to stop fluttering and be still for a moment that something else comes into focus: Without her presence to ground them, her airily self-absorbed confrères might well drift right up past the proscenium arch and into the ether.
Other characters are on hand mostly as dullards for the leads to mock, so count it an accomplishment that Kevin Hogan’s primly paternal art dealer Ernest and Catherine Flye’s dottily disapproving maid register as folks who could conceivably have lives offstage. Wit-deprived, they can’t skate across the surface of emotions as the leads do, and—in Ernest’s case, particularly—are consequently left to wallow in feeling.
Even the leads do a bit of wallowing in Act Two, but happily, before the comedy can melt into outright melodrama, Coward gets Leo and Otto roaring drunk, and they skate tipsily back into safer comic territory.