The buzz word in Noël Coward’s 1932 Design for Living , the word he noticeably uses many times, is
“gay.” “Frightfully” and “dreadfully” do not count; they are the Cowardesque
equivalent to punctuation. He was, of course, using “gay” in its frothy,
old-fashioned sense-happy, light-hearted, having or inducing high spirits.
Gaiety is all, and all to Noël Coward.
It’s an essential mask worn like a protective skin. Coward originally played the role of Leo in Design for Living (with Alfred Lunt and
Lynn Fontanne), and the play itself is about public faces and private lives.
The classic light comedy
about three old friends-Gilda the interior decorator, Otto the portrait painter
and Leo the successful dramatist, who might be bisexual or trisexual, depending
on the weather-was surely daring in its time. “The actual facts are so simple,”
Leo tells Gilda in a brilliant speech. “I love you. You love me. You love Otto.
I love Otto. Otto loves you. Otto loves me. There now! Start to unravel from
But the moment you drop
the mask to dig for Significance and Social Comment beneath Coward’s glittering
artifice-beneath his unique talent to amuse-you’re sunk. And sunk, I’m afraid,
is the literally gay production of Design
for Living at the American Airlines Theatre. In the cause of some loony notion of emotional reality or tired sexual politics, it actually goes
against everything Coward stood for. Everything he did in his seriously
flippant style was to suggest the emotional truth in the subtext. The game is
this: What’s really said remains unsaid.
Everyone, even so, would
have to be living on the moon not to notice that Otto and Leo are
homosexual. But Joe Mantello’s crudely
revisionist production with his cast of British stars-Alan Cumming, Jennifer
Ehle and Dominic West-has an unfortunate agenda of its own.
The homoerotic interpretation of the new production isn’t
fresh, however. I recall seeing Sean Mathias’ production of Design for Living in London five years ago that had a Leo and Otto
who both looked like Alan Cumming as the M.C. with the glitter nipples in Cabaret . It was when the Gilda in Mr.
Mathias’ extremely subtle staging gave herself a quick douche at the start of
the opening scene that I feared we might be in for a long night. Coward must
have been spinning in his grave, and he’s been spinning in his grave ever
Mr. Cumming as an effeminate, glibly modern Otto has settled
for a pierced eyebrow, dyed blond punky hair, grungy underpants and, among much
else, eye shadow and lipstick. (Coward’s stage direction for the last act is
“Faultless evening dress.”) I think the makeup was meant to be really, really
shocking. He also appears in zebra-striped booties, a lipstick-red coat, a
kimono-whatever. Memo to Mr. Cumming and all concerned: It was Noël Coward who
said that homosexuality is as normal as blueberry pie. Relax!
But Mr. Cumming can’t relax. He wants to be loved, while
giving a performance of parodiable indulgence. He milks and mugs, he minces, he
cries hysterically, he has girl fights. He plays to the gallery, contorting
himself into studied poses for our perusal. He is never “off.” The outwardly
decadent Mr. Cumming trips across the stage trying to be an adorably needy
sprite. He’s a hey-nonny-no Otto.
Dominic West with his
tousled hair is a handsome butch bore as Leo, and he also appears in
unflattering underpants. Let’s not go into them now. It’s an authentic sense of wit and period that’s fatally
absent. Mr. West and Mr. Cumming strain for effect, mistakenly mining the
comedy for messages that Coward never intended. Even Jennifer Ehle, so
sure-footed as the enigmatic heroine of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (for which she won a Tony), is playing the
“dreadfully untidy life” of bohemian Gilda too seriously by half. Her Gilda
seems neurotically self-hating, whereas she should be irresponsibly, madly
narcissistic-if only for the sake of giddy appearances.
In the rush to gush over Coward, recent commentators have
overlooked that “The Master,” who wrote three or four of the best light
comedies in the English language, wasn’t a particularly profound man of the
theater. He publicly derided the three foremost theater innovators in modern
history: Stanislavsky, Brecht and Beckett. Realism, or even magic realism, were
of no interest. Tony Kushner’s Angels in
America , for example, would have been a bore to him. “I like to be entertained in the theater,” said
Coward. Otherwise, he argued, “art goes out of the window.”
His plays go out
the window. With or without the right, deft touch, Coward’s speechifying in Design for Living can seem awfully
overheated. Here’s Gilda about herself: “… then, suddenly, something happens, a
spark is struck and down I go into the mud! Squirming with archness, being
aloof and desirable, consciously alluring, snatching and grabbing, evading and
surrendering, dressed up and painted for victory. An object of strange
“O.K., so Coward’s
characters can seem arch and insufferably smug and numbingly aphoristic and
self-congratulatory,” David Ives briefly conceded in an otherwise admiring
tribute to Coward in The New York Times .
“There will be those who want to scale the footlights and strangle the
threesome with silk.”
It depends . A rope
will do. But when we find ourselves wondering what Gilda actually sees in good
old Otto and Leo, there’s trouble. It was a belated pleasure-and a relief-to
see T. Scott Cunningham and Marisa Berenson getting it elegantly, effortlessly
right in their cameo roles in the final act. But Design for Living isn’t about sex. It’s about friendship and having
a great time, come what may, in a prim, disapproving, conformist world. It’s as
much about advocating anything sexual as The
Tempest is about interpreting weather reports. It’s a frolic about friends
and silly temptations and living your own life-and the rest, Noël Coward is
saying in no uncertain stylish terms, is nobody’s business but your own.