This fierce, mysterious Noël Coward play – the beneficiary of a stunning, fearsomely good production at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – is, shall we say, a gay deceiver. It is best understood not as a comedy but as a tragedy. It ostensibly celebrates the sexual liberation of its protagonists but there is an undercurrent of a Nietzchean will-to-power ethos which enables successful artists to ignore human morality. The final act, which we might expect to culminate with the triumph of the protagonists, does so, but also portrays the humiliation of a good (if humorless and stuffy) man who had shown them nothing but love and generosity. We end up understanding the protagonists more, and liking them less. Director Michael Kahn understands all of this and gives it to us unambiguously. Design for Living is one of those rare plays that might make us better people walking out of the theater than we were walking in.
We must understand that the stakes for this play were as high as they could possibly be to Coward. He was a gay man, closeted except to his closest friends, who was writing a play in which romantic rivals become lovers, and in which polyandry rules over all. This was, mind you, at a time when sodomy was a crime and the law was enforced. It had been only thirty-seven years previous (a period roughly equal to the gap between Watergate and the present day) that Oscar Wilde was sentenced to Reading Gaol. To raise the stakes further, Coward made one of his rivals-turned-lovers a playwright, and he played that role himself in its first production. It would have been easy to understand if Coward had made his sexual renegades heroic, or had victimized them, or if he had flooded the play with his signature arch wit. He did none of those things, though. Noël Coward was no coward. The first responsibility of theater is to the truth. Coward honored that responsibility.
So does Shakespeare Theater with this production. This is in part due to the outstanding work of three principals: Tom Story as the painter Otto Sylvus, Robert Sella as the playwright Leo Mercuré, and Gretchen Egolf as Gilda, the woman they both love. In the first Act, Otto and Gilda live together, poor as Enron shareholders, in a Parisian garret where a huge panel of windows, festooned with bird droppings, lets in the good light. (James Noone’s sets are brilliant; his third-act set won a spontaneous round of applause from the opening-night audience). Though Gilda adores her painter she is not above a little amour with Leo, whom she also loves, and who also loves Otto, and whom Otto also loves. This does not work out as happily as one might wish.
In the second Act Leo and Gilda live together, in a beautiful London townhouse with their persistently befuddled, and vaguely resentful, housekeeper Miss Hodge (the fabulous Catherine Flye; Kevin Hodge, Todd Scofield and Nathan Bennett also turn in notable performances, and there is not a false moment onstage with any of the cast). Leo is now a success, although success is not as glorious as he might have hoped. (“This isn’t your first play,” asks a moronic reporter, whom Scofield plays beautifully; when this line of questioning proves unpromising, he asks “do you like sport?”) Gilda is pleased with her love but not pleased with her life, in which she is not doing her own art (which is interior design). When she has an opportunity to exchange bodily fluids with Otto, she does so enthusiastically. This also does not end up happily but it does result in us seeing Story and Sella stage one of the all-time great drunk scenes, in which Sella in particular seems so spectacularly inebriated that you may well find yourself getting a little blitzed. At the end – and you knew this was coming – Otto and Leo give each other a big smooch, and act Three of their lives begins.
You might expect the third act to be a celebration of the protagonists’ lifestyle choice, and full of Cowardian bon mots. It is not. Instead, we are in a penthouse so spectacular that it seems sacrilegious to appear in it in anything but evening dress. (Costume designer Robert Perdziola perfectly recaptures the era where Wearing Good Clothes was next to godliness). Gilda is now married, to a man who is not a wit or a successful artist but who loves her and supports her art (judging from their home, she is terrific at it.) Otto and Leo have come to claim their prize. To get her, they employ wit and high language, but it does not endear them to us. Instead, they reveal themselves to be selfish, callow, and callous, and Gilda is shown to be all of that as well, and a liar too. They triumph, but it leaves a hole in our hearts.
Throughout all of these proceedings there is a whiff of the Nietzschean ubermensch. Coward portrays his ménage a trios not as a humane solution to an otherwise-irresolvable love triangle but as a special exemption for the successful artist from the confines of conventional morality. This is, as Coward puts it, “love among the artists” and it is telling that it cannot be realized until all three members of the triad are successful. The servants may be disgusted (as Miss Hodge is, spectacularly), but, as Otto puts it, “it’s none of (their) business.” It is the artist’s business. But, having triumphed over the culture’s concepts of sexual propriety, may Leo, Otto and Gilda also ignore the bonds of the marriage contract, the obligations of honest love, and all concept of honor?
Coward has the artistic integrity not to answer the question, and as Gilda’s husband stumbles out of the penthouse in rage and tears, our feelings are decidedly mixed. It takes a real artist to raise the questions provoked by Design for Living. It takes a great artist not to answer them.
Design for Living
reviewed by Tim Treanor
directed by Michael Kahn
produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
reviewed by Tim Treanor