Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Design for Living"

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note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Larry Stark

"Design for Living"

by Noel Coward
Directed by Spiro Veloudos

Set Design by J. Michael Griggs
Lighting Design by Scott Clyve
Costume Design by Rafael Jaen
Assistant Costume Designer Stephanie Cluggish
Properties Kelly Johnston
Master Electrician Ben Bryant
Ron Crew Roy Garner & Scott Lundgren
Production Manager John Doerschuk
Assistant Stage Manager Amanda Ostrow
Stage Manager Nerys Powell

Ernest Friedman.........Nigel Gore
Otto...............Gabriel Kuttner
Gilda...............Suzanne Nitter
Leo...............Diego Arciniegas
Miss Hodge..............Beth Gotha
Henry Carver..........Richard Arum
Helen Carver.........Janelle Mills
Grace Torrance.....Jocelyn Parrish
Matthew/Mr. Birbeck...Paul Melendy

Written and set in the 1930's, Noel Coward's witty "Design for Living" is an impassioned defense of a sort of "Bloomsbury ethic" --- a bald insistence that some people's commitment to art not merely allows but compels an indifference to the conventional morals of society. Here Diego Arciniegas plays a playwright, Gabriel Kuttner a painter, and Suzanne Nitter and interior designer --- and they freely and sincerely admit that they all love each other, though sorting all that out sexually takes three short, blustery acts stretched over three and a half years in Paris, London, and finally New York. They, eventually, design lives that give their love of each other free expression. The play is brilliantly acted, getting better and better as it unfolds --- and a drinking-bout ending the second-act must be experienced to be believed!

But, for the moment, let me start by focussing not on the artists, but their critics:

In a sense the argument plays out not so much as a trio, but a quartet. Nigel Gore plays an art dealer capable of buying and selling a Matisse several times over, though he really knows only its worth, not its value. His love for Gilda is expressed mainly in his criticisms of her "fuss," her refusal to marry the painter she lives with, her financial and professional independence, her indifference to critical outrage from society, or from Ernest himself. At play's end, when she admits that two years of marriage to him was living a lie, his dudgeon is as high as their thirtieth-floor New York penthouse --- but, thank Ghod, totally ineffective.

In Act II criticism comes from Beth Gotha playing a dutiful but puzzled maid suddenly attempting to call her "Miss" not "Ma'am" and astonished that it's the playwright and not the painter-"husband" waking up in the bedroom that morning. It certainly breaks down her servant's mum indifference to employer's foibles!

For Act III, when both Otto and Leo end a lull of two years' male (gay) bonding by barging in on a coctail-party, it's Ernest's elegantly dressed clients that sniffily carp at their hosts' inadequacies --- and beat a hasty, huffy retreat at the entrance of the commedians. The major carping comes from Richard Arum, who with Paul Melendy play several quick-change small roles. (And I should mention that English accents here are so subtly solid that Jocelyn Parrish's American accent as one of the clients comes as a significant surprise.)

Noel Coward here faces the conundrum that the ultimate, though perhaps the least important, expression of love happens to be sex. The fact, repeated throughout the play, that all three of these unconventional artists genuinely love each other makes them, well, somewhat unique --- but if that is designed to let them create, what does that matter?

Oh, J. Michael Griggs' set deserves comment: To illustrate Gilda's work as interior decorator, he has painted the walls in big, splashy motifs like Matisse paintings, with swirling spiral patterns on floors and rugs. Since none of the artists are seen working (well, Otto begins act II enduring pompous newspaper critiques of his hit play) this (and a portrait of Gilda by Otto) serves as a reminder that these three Make Art --- and isn't that, really, the point of it all?

( a k a larry stark )

"Design for Living" (4 - 27 January)
Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON MA

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