These three people may not constitute a conventional nuclear family, but they spin around with each other like manic electrons orbiting a dull, gummy social core. And when any one or two temporarily break away, the whole relationship destabilizes and becomes dangerously radioactive.
All right, so Noel Coward's Design for Living isn't about nuclear physics; it's about three increasingly successful artists in the early 1930s--people who write and paint and decorate and call each other "darling" and drink too much and dress oh-so-elegantly for dinner. But they are people who closely circle conventional society--their patrons--while dizzily pursuing their own unconventional lifestyles.
Coward's 1933 comedy, currently offered by Live Theatre Workshop, holds up surprisingly well after all these decades. That can't be said of Coward's entire oeuvre. Blithe Spirit, for example, was insubstantial enough in 1941 and seemed absolutely ectoplasmic when Arizona Theatre Company revived it in 1997. Design for Living, in contrast, remains relevant to our social fixations and dysfunctions, even while posing as frivolous entertainment.
Gilda, an interior decorator, has fallen in with two inseparable buddies, Otto (a painter) and Leo (a playwright). When the play opens, Gilda has been living for some time with Otto in Paris, but she's just spent a night in the sack with Leo. Bohemian though he may be, Otto feels betrayed by the two people he loves, and abandons them.
Gilda and Leo set up housekeeping together in London, not bothering to marry. As Leo grows more successful, Gilda grows restless, and when Otto suddenly shows up after a year and a half it seems clear what will happen next--"It's my turn again!" Otto smugly declares.
Yet switching back and forth between Otto and Leo is not how Gilda wants to spend the rest of her life, and the remainder of the play concerns how the three contrive--separately and together--to fashion a workable design for living.
Coward's brittle, sophisticated witticisms still provide great moment-to-moment pleasure. Who can resist such a malicious yet still largely true observation as "People say that opera isn't what it used to be, but it is what it used to be; that's what's wrong with it"? That's a line worthy of Oscar Wilde.
Urbane wit isn't the only thing Coward had in common with Wilde; both men were homosexuals in an England in which such "deviancy" was criminalized. Coward was necessarily discreet about his sexual orientation, and, similarly, whatever Otto and Leo may be up to once Gilda abandons them is left to our imagination. In any case, it's clear that these three people somehow can't live by the rules; it's up to them to sort things out for themselves, and as long as they don't intrude on anyone else's life, it's nobody's damn business what they do--Otto says as much to a scandalized maid.
Coward conveys all this with a feathery touch, and director Elizabeth Gooden wisely resists turning this into a blatant message play. She guides her three principals through the action and dialog with a champagne fizz, relegating the serious issues to the appealing production's lingering aftertaste.
Design for Living essentially revolves around Gilda, and Missie Hinske makes her character worthy of that responsibility. Hinske's Gilda is no mere frivolous flapper; sure, she's terribly confused, but she's also more perceptive and more widely cultured than the men around her, and somehow she musters enough self-control to escape (for now) from whatever crisis she gets herself into.
Otto is the work's most flamboyant figure, and James Mitchell Gooden--LTW's too seldom-seen artistic director--expertly takes Otto to the edge without ever falling into the abyss of caricature. With Gooden playing to the third row of his two-row theater-in-the-round, Stephen Elton's more subtle Leo suffers a peculiar disadvantage. Coming off like a Hugh Grant stabilized by a streak of Alec Baldwin, Elton turns in a low-key performance that's better suited to the screen than the stage. Elton is by no means inadequate, but his Leo seems to exist in a universe distinct from Gilda and Otto's.
The supporting players are variable but worthy, led by Cliff Madison as the trio's prim, pedestrian friend Ernest. At one point, the appalled Ernest turns his back on Gilda, Otto and Leo and declares, "I never want to see you again!" But immediately he whirls around to get another look. It's terribly egotistical of Coward to believe that normal society couldn't take their eyes off him and his little bohemian circle. But he was right. We're still a nation of Ernests, addicted to tsking over celebrity-obsessed magazines and TV shows.
We look back at the 1950s as America's decade of conformity, yet we're now as conformist as ever. The two major presidential candidates are virtually indistinguishable, the politics of race and gender thrive on categorization rather than particularization, and even progressives are embracing "it-takes-a-village" communitarianism. We need misfits like Gilda, Otto and Leo more than ever.
In 1933, Coward surely hoped his audience would come away thinking, "Who are we to judge these odd people whose lives have no effect on ours?" Today, it would be better if Gilda's life did have at least a slight effect on ours. As Coward might have put it, people say that American society isn't what it used to be, but society is what it used to be; that's what's wrong with it.