Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2005
One of the great joys of being able to follow a real theatre company through its season is seeing the same actors take on different roles. It gives you a whole new perspective on their abilities and the scope of the company. Bakerloo Theatre Project advertises “Three Weeks, Two Plays, One Cast” and that is exactly what you get. This year mark’s Bakerloo’s first foray into presenting two plays in repertory, and it seems to be a success.
The evening I attended Design for Living there had also been a matinee performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I overheard some other audience members commenting that they were pleased to be able to see both shows in one day. While August 6 was the only day that Bakerloo bravely put its cast through the marathon task of performing two shows in one day, having seen both productions on separate days I can understand the fun for the audience of returning to the same theatre three hours later and seeing the transformation. It is literally a shock to see Sarah Murphy and Eric Chase (they play Cobweb and Puck respectively in Midsummer) stripped of their fairy gear and portraying normal people. Well, as normal as any two people get in this racy Noël Coward comedy.
Calling “Design for Living” a comedy of manners would be plausible, as long as you understand that the three principal characters – Gilda (Gwyn Hervochon), Otto Sylvus (Steven Strafford), and Leo Mercuré (Chase) – invent and adhere to their own set of manners rather than following those proscribed by society. The society in question is London, Paris and New York high society in the early 1930’s. By the time Design for Living was first produced in London in 1932 the young Noel Coward (1899-1973) was already an established phenomenon as an actor and playwright. He created this romp as a vanity project for himself and his friends Alfred Lunt (1892–1977) and Lynn Fontanne (1887-1983), one of the foremost married couples performing in the English language in the mid-20th century. In the original production Lunt played the artist Otto and Coward played the playwright Leo. I do not know enough about the lives of Lunt, Fontanne, and Coward to know if their relationship mirrored that of Gilda, Otto and Leo, but certainly Coward was gay or bisexual, and part of the scandal and success surrounding the play’s original run must have been trying to guess how fact and fiction intertwined.
“The actual facts are so simple. I love you. You love me. I love Otto. Otto loves you. Otto loves me. There now! Start to unravel from there.” says Leo in Act I. There isn’t a word in the English language to aptly describe the relationship between Otto, Leo and Gilda, but of course the French have a term for it: ménage-à-trois. Today we tend to think of such a relationship as being a one-night-stand affair, but the literal translation is “household of three”. A true ménage-à-trois involves a long term sexual relationship between three people who cohabitat. Like a very crowded marriage. This is where Gilda, Otto and Leo eventually end up. What Design for Living tells is the tale of how they arrive there.
Coward was and still is accused of writing very “thin” plays. He has his alter ego Leo respond to this criticism vociferously in the beginning of Act II, but the statement remains true. Coward’s plays are light and brittle, and for a while in the very beginning I was worried that Director William Addis’s robust American presentation would shatter the veneer. I absolutely hate fake British accents, and I hear way too many of them, so I was glad that Addis and his cast didn’t attempt any, but this concern was a matter of style rather than accent. Coward’s characters behave in a certain way. There is a very British restraint to them, and Addis lets his healthy young cast rip into their roles with lust and gusto. It works, but it takes some getting used to.
It also takes getting used to seeing Coward performed on an essentially bare stage. Drawing room comedy belongs in a drawing room, and I think even a very simple set would have enhanced the proceedings. I understand that Bakerloo’s vision is to strip down the trappings of theatrical artifice to focus on the script and the performers, but I needed something more than thrift shop furniture to enable me to envision the glamorous and artsy world in which Gilda, Otto and Leo orbit.
Now, let’s talk about sex. The folks at Bakerloo must be under the impression that I do nothing but talk about sex in my reviews, which honestly isn’t the case, but both of their 2005 productions have brought different aspects of that endlessly fascinating subject to my mind.
By Act III, Addis has Chase and Strafford playing Leo and Otto as a flamboyantly naughty gay couple. But there hasn’t really been a glimmer of their physical attraction to each other until then. Act II ends with them in a suggestive drunken embrace as they mourn the departure of Gilda from their lives, but since we haven’t sensed their attraction earlier it feels kind of like: “Well, the woman’s gone. I guess we’ll have to have sex with each other.” Which isn’t how it works. As attractive and successful young artists neither man would have any trouble “replacing” Gilda with another woman. No one “gets gay” from drinking brandy, and, although it is plausible that Leo and Otto’s drunken evening might have evolved into a roll in the hay, there is no explanation for why they would suddenly embrace a gay or bisexual lifestyle. If, as Coward undoubtedly intends, there is sexual tension between Leo and Otto from the start, we need to see it. And we need to see the double jealousy each man feels when he is wronged not just by the woman he loves, but by the man he loves too.
With no sets, some glorious 1930’s costumes would be nice, and Sarah Murphy, who also plays the small role of Miss Hodge, has failed to maintain the sense of period throughout, although she does come up with some smashing outfits every now and then. Hervochon looked amazing in that pants suit in Act II once she put on the coat, and Marsha Harman who appears only in Act III as the society matron Grace Torrence, looks fabulous.
Chase, Strafford and Hervochon are strong and appealing leads. Each one establishes his or her own character early on, which is necessary since Coward does not really present them as individuals but only as they relate to each other. Justin Steeve is gloriously deadpan as Ernest Friedman, the art dealer who ultimately marries Gilda only to discover there is only room for two men in her heart and her bed, and neither of them is him. But why has Murphy costumed Steeve as Jimmy Olsen? Surely successful art dealers dress better than that.
Murphy is highly amusing as Miss Hodge, maid to Leo and Gilda in London who wishes that she and her employers were more respectable than they are. Her costume is perfection. Would that she had exerted as much effort on the leads.
Design for Living is as wonderfully fresh and modern as it was 72 years ago. Coward’s lines are still sharp and funny, and his characters, although they occupy a world that no longer exists, are delightful and sympathetic. While the Bakerloo production suffers from meager production values, it is strong in presenting these people as lively and engaging. I hadn’t seen “Design for Living” before, and it was a lot of fun. I would encourage you to go and support this interesting young company.
The Bakerloo Theatre Project‘s production of Design for Living will be performed August 4, 6, 10, 11, 12, and 13 at 8 p.m. in West Hall on the campus of RPI in Troy, New York. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with a brief break between Acts I & II and a full intermission between Acts II & III. This is a play about grown-up people dealing with grown-up issues. I would not bring children under 16. Call the box office at 212-252-2947 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005