THE BASICS: Noel Coward’s granddaddy (1932) contribution to the Unconventional Loving Arrangements genre kicks off the ICTC’s 2017-18 season. Katie Mallinson directs a cast of ten. Be warned: it’s long, especially for a light comedy, running close to three hours with its two ten minute intermissions!
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Gilda (muse and sometime interior decorator), Otto (starving artist) and Leo (successful playwright), three “bright young things” with decidedly Bohemian tendencies, play mix-and-match for a few years, even involving their square mutual friend Ernest (art dealer) in the fun. In the end, though, they just can’t play by the accepted rules…
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: If DESIGN FOR LIVING was ever staged professionally in town, it was before my time (and I’m no spring chicken). An old film buff, I do retain a few pleasant memories of the Lubitsch/Ben Hecht film version, of 1933. Hecht took a hatchet to Coward’s play, however, keeping the plot edifice and the characters, but retaining just a single line of original dialogue! With the brilliant Lubitsch at the helm, the film clocks in at a sprightly 91 minutes. And it manages to be charming, despite what I would describe as embarrassing performances from Gary Cooper and Frederic March (Try to picture Gary Cooper as a starving Bohemian artist!) OK, Miriam Hopkins was terrific.
But let’s get back to the matter at hand. The present production, using all the Coward dialogue, stocked with some very fine local actors, and given deluxe treatment by a theater known for reverential revivals, is having trouble keeping people awake through the second act. How can this be??
The present production, using all the Coward dialogue, stocked with some very fine local actors, and given deluxe treatment by a theater known for reverential revivals, is having trouble keeping people awake through the second act. How can this be??
I gave the matter considerable thought. Here’s my explanation: DESIGN FOR LIVING is not first class Coward. It’s no PRIVATE LIVES, HAY FEVER, or PRESENT LAUGHTER. Mr. Coward wrote the piece to give himself and his friends the Lunts a chance to shine. And by all accounts, they did. It’s easy to imagine them on Broadway, spewing out torrents of clever dialog and chewing up the scenery, taking audiences on a kind of breathless ride. But DESIGN’s plot elements are thin and predictable. Every scene could get to where it’s going with half the language and in half the time.
As a star vehicle without magnetic stars, DESIGN FOR LIVING simply cannot support its own tremendous verbiage. This is not to knock Kate LoConti, Adriano Gatto or Ben Michael Moran. They’re all skillful players, and are really giving it their all. Actually, Gatto and Moran are a good deal better than Cooper and March were. But this is not a chipper little 91 minute romp; it’s a nearly three hour endurance contest. Clever, yes, but never uproarious. And, for all its length, saddled with an abrupt ending that leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. Of the principals, Eric Rawski does the best, I think, but he’s certainly not well cast.
If there was ever a play that could use a serious “haircut”, this is it. Director Mallinson does what she can, moving her actors about (as is so necessary at the Andrews Theatre) and not letting anybody dawdle. And there are some wonderful period costumes from Ann Emo. The ever reliable Tom Makar ties the whole thing up with beautiful period French chamber music for winds—think Darius Milhaud and Les Six. (Mostly trios, as he later confided. I’m still laughing!)
IN SUM: A noble effort, and a good chance to see a decidedly lesser Coward play. Just remember, it’s very long, and in desperate need of a good editing! You might want to refrain from eating a heavy dinner before you attend!
Lead image: Adriano Gatto, Ben Michael Moran and Kate LoConti | Photo by Gene Witkowski.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!