Noel Coward is a brilliant writer. He is clever, witty, biting, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. His style begs for ninety minutes of very tight, crisp dialogue to go along with the sometimes outrageous behavior of his shallow and callous characters. Ninety minutes would be fun to watch, just to laugh at people who are ridiculously narcissistic, who use others as props to talk at about how neurotic and wonderful they are, or as objects to further whatever money-making scheme they are currently involved in.
Of course, we can now just watch the news on a minute-to-minute basis for this. And while there is nothing amusing about the news, there is a great deal to amuse in Mr. Coward’s play, Design For Living, now at the Andrews Theatre, even though it is in three acts and is three hours long. As Gilda, our heroine says, there are “masses and masses and masses of words.” Shallow, callous people are not that compelling over three hours, as others in the audience seemed to signal. After each intermission, there were empty seats in the sold-out Andrews Theatre, home of Irish Classical Theatre Company. Or perhaps those who departed were all just anxious to join the street party outside, celebrating the 36th year of Curtain Up!
The evening began twenty minutes late following a very sweet and loving tribute to the recently deceased Joan Andrews by Artistic Director Vincent O’Neill. And then it was, finally, on to the show…
Gilda, a purposely unsuccessful interior designer, lives with Otto, a not-very-successful painter who used to be lovers with Leo, a playwright who moved away and became rich and famous. Leo returns unexpectedly, and in the opening scene is found to have spent the night with Gilda while Otto was away. Ernest is an art dealer, who represents The Establishment, and is a friend to the trio, acting as the voice of reason. Gilda, Otto, and Leo play musical beds over a period of several years and talk quite wittily and endlessly about how lucky they are to all love each other so much.
There is a moment in Act Two, Scene Three when Gilda had a thought that was insightful. Surprise! She said she wanted to paddle her own canoe instead of just weighing down someone else’s, pretending to be steering it. However, that all came to naught, as we see in Act Three.
Kate LoConti plays Gilda as a peripatetic, self-styled free spirit flying around the stage in bare feet, up on a chair and then down again as she tells Ernest her belief that being successful ruins everything and women are unreliable. She is very good in the part - earnest, funny, lovely, and as just about as neurotic and self-involved as a person can be. She wears clothes beautifully and Ann Emo’s 1930s costumes are perfect for her. I particularly like the dressing gown in Act Two. Elegant.
Otto (Adriano Gatto) and Leo (Ben Michael Moran) play off of each other to great effect. Their drunk scene is hilarious. Mr. Gatto is at ease as Otto. He is very convincing as the young artist who comes to accept just how far his talents can take him. While Mr. Moran’s Leo seems rather wooden and overdone at times, he has fine moments as the successful playwright who knows that all the attention and invitations he is receiving are because of what he has written, not who he is. He accepts this because it amuses him. He is the voice of Mr. Coward, who skewers the aristocracy and hangers-on who flock around artists and playwrights of the moment, and who are just as superficial as the people they celebrate.
Eric Michael Rawski has the role of Ernest, who represents the more conservative culture at large, which means he is something of a bore. He does very well for the most part and has some very good moments as he acts as a foil for the trio of lovers. The acting choices for the final scene, whether his own or by direction, as he becomes an hysterical mess, made me flinch and be annoyed with him, rather than feel the hurt that he must have been feeling when confronted by the three careless people who have no empathy for him.
Jennifer Fitzery stands out as the quirky, Cockney maid, Miss Hodge. Elliot Fox, Connor Graham, Anna Krempholtz, Lisa Vitrano, and Ron Mangum round out the cast.
Direction is by Katie Mallinson. Her actors are very good, and she allows us to see how talented they are.
Mr. Coward is said to have commented that he and the Lunts (who were the original trio on Broadway) liked this play more than other people did. I don’t know if that is true. But I do know that he had Leo read a review of his own most recent successful play in which one critic said that while very amusing, “the play as a whole is decidedly thin.” I think Mr. Coward may have been speaking as his own critic.