The Seattle Repertory Theatre continues its celebration of NoŽl Coward's 100th birthday with Design for Living. NoŽl Coward originally conceived Design for Living as a vehicle for himself and two of his friends, the celebrated acting duo of Lynne Fontanne and Alfred Lunt. NoŽl had met the couple when he was 22, and he waited eleven years, until all three performers had reached a level of success where they could get away with the sexual ambiguities of the play, to present it on Broadway. Design for Living opened on Broadway in 1933, at the height of the depression and when censorship still ruled the stage (it was banned from the London stage by the Lord Chancellor until 1939, when its premier starred Diana Wynywar, Anton Walbrook and Rex Harrison) and was a smash hit.
The play revolves around the relationship between three friends: Otto, a painter (originally played by Alfred Lunt), Gilda, an interior decorator (originally played by Lynne Fontanne) and Leo, a playwright (originally played by NoŽl himself). Theirs is an unconventional relationship even by today's standards, as it turns the eternal romantic triangle into a pyramid; Gilda attempts a conventional relationship with each man, but ends up cheating on each of them with the other. It is only when they realize that the one thing missing in each pairing is the third individual, that they settle down together as a trio.
Design for Living has always been labeled as a thinly disguised gay play, as the relationship between Otto and Leo is as strong as the relationships either man has with Gilda. During its out-of-town tryouts, Design for Living acquired a scandalous reputation as having a 'touch of lavender' about it, which thrilled the audiences, and was scoffed at by reviewers (only Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times even made mention of the possible gay relationship of the two bachelors in the play, but he quickly passed over it claiming, "although there is a constant odor of abnormality about this one, it is no more sensuous or erotic than a highly polished blade of steel.")
But it is scarcely a hidden or deeply closeted play. With Leo saying to Gilda, "the actual facts are so very simple. I love you, you love me. You love Otto. I love Otto. Otto loves you. Otto loves me..." and the trio being described as "a disgusting three-sided erotic hotch-potch" and "the Three Famous Hermaphrodites!" it is hard to see how anybody could miss the obvious. It was a show in which the more you knew (or thought you knew) about the sexual proclivities of the stars, the more you got out of the show and could 'read between the lines.'
Surprisingly, Design for Living is not at all dated, and is as sharp and up to date as the latest Paul Rudnick comedy. If anything, its theme of liquid sexuality, whose boundaries are constantly shifting, is more timely now than it was in the 30's. Director Stephen Wadsworth did a masterful job of treading the fine line between comedic 'NoŽl Coward-ian dandy' and camp, and choreographed the scenes as much as blocked them (no doubt due to his extensive opera experience, which includes a production he wrote with Leonard Bernstein, A Quiet Place). His timing was exquisite, and the three actors often moved and reacted as one, which only added to the hilarity and the sense of bonding between them. He updated the play a little, by allowing the two bachelors moments to kiss and be intimate (but never pornographic), thus cementing the relationship between the two of them.
The three actors playing the leading trio were superb. Francesca Farinday gave Gilda just the right manic edge, and she never calmed down nor felt complete until all three pieces in the relationship were in place. Jeff Woodman, excellent as Leo, together with Jared Reed as Otto, managed to play a character that was believable as being in a relationship with another man, and more importantly with Gilda. Mark Chamberlin also deserves mention as Ernest Freidman, an art dealer who tries to rescue Gilda from the two degenerates, and talks her into a loveless marriage (from which the boys are all to happy to rescue her.)
Design for Living runs until April 18th, and as it is co-produced by the McCarther Theatre for the Performing Arts in New Jersey, it may be surfacing there as well. If it does, make sure you celebrate NoŽl Coward's centennial in style and catch his grand Design . For tickets in Seattle call (206) 443-2222 or check out the Seattle Rep's website: www.seattlerep.org.