Design for Living
Also see Fred's reviews The Visit, Fiddler on the Roof and Breaking the Code and hisInterview with John Cariani and Julianne Boyd of Dancing Lessons
Coward, writing the somewhat risque (for that time) comedy in 1932, would star in it with that famous acting couple, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt. The three of them had been friends for a decade or so when Design for Living opened in New York. London would not permit a production until six or seven years later.
The back story which fuels the BTG rendering is also kind of nifty. Chris Geary (Otto), Tom Pecinka (Leo) and Ariana Venturi (Gilda) are students and friends at Yale School of Drama. Kate Maguire, artistic director of Berkshire Theatre Group, brought them aboard a year ago for The Cat and the Canary. The three actors asked Maguire if they could come back and perform in Design. Directing for the first time at the Unicorn is Tom Story, who began performing on that very stage 16 years ago. Story also played the character of Otto not all that long ago for Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, D.C.
At the outset, Gilda is situated in 1931 in Otto's Paris studio. She (out of sorts) is an interior designer and he, who appears a bit later, is an artist. Ernest Friedman (Paul Cooper) tries to settle Gilda and, as an art dealer, also wishes to show off a Matisse he bought. When Ernest asks Gilda what troubles her, the answer is "hormones." Otto blasts into the room with the world's enthusiasm and it is clear that Gilda is attached to him; she, in fact, lives with him. Otto and Ernest leave to locate Leo. The problem, though, is that Leo was actually in the back bedroom since he spent the night with Gilda. Otto returns and receives the news.
Designer Reid Thompson, for the first act, places sketches of the human body on the walls and includes nine worn Persian rugs ... with furniture to match. The trappings are perfectly appropriate.
Spoilers aheadThe second act, including three scenes in Leo's London flat in 1933, finds everyone spruced up. Gilda's maroon evening apparel is appealing and Otto comes in wearing a camel's hair coat and suitably stylish hat. Throughout, Hunter Kaczorowski's wardrobe choices are spot-on. People come and go, including the cartoonish and wondrous housekeeper Miss Hodge (Molly Heller, who grabs attention whenever she is on stage). Before the second intermission, Leo (who has been living with Gilda) discovers that Otto has just slept with Gilda. The boys celebrate by binge drinking: brandy is followed by sherry. Physical comedy and license to act out ensure hilarity. Not to be missed.
When the play resumes, Ernest's New York City glamorous apartment is the place. He has married Gilda and she is hosting an evening to entertain client-type young professionals. Finally, Otto and Leo, during the last scene, emerge from closed doors, wearing pajamas and robes belonging to Ernest. The craziness concludes with Gilda, Otto, and Leo tumbling together onto a snazzy looking sofa (amid the glitzy confines of this penthouse). The play ends with the threesome on a natural high.
Story stages the show as a period piece and Coward is all about granting the amusingly artsy trio of leading characters opportunities to carry on and on. Toward the end of the second act, Otto and Leo find that Gilda has left notes for each of them. These missives are identical, saying "Goodbye my little dear. Thank you for the keys to the city." The men take this as a cue to grab for the bottle.
Coward is better known for plays like Blithe Spirit and Private Lives. Design for Living must have pushed the envelope during the 1930s in terms of gender, sexuality, morality, and even propriety. With some playfully cutting edges, the script is animated and I believe it is Ernest who tells Otto at the end of the first act, "It was an unpremeditated roll in the hay." The high-spirited young actors taking starring roles provide detailed performances and their joie de vivre permeates this cozy theater space. Ah, the vagaries of youth, complete with excess, release, possibility. Such extravagance.
Design for Living continues in the Unicorn Theatre as part of Berkshire Theatre Group in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through August 16th, 2014. For tickets, call (413) 997-4444 or visit www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.
- Fred Sokol