A New Design for Living, but Noël Coward Gets Killed

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

there.”

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

since.

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

contempt!”

“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.

A New Design for Living, but Noël Coward Gets Killed