Editors' pick

Design for Living


Editorial Review

Fizzy 'Design' Is Party To Intoxicating Style

By Nelson Pressley
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, May 21, 2009

It's fitting that the Shakespeare Theatre Company's suave, methodical production of "Design for Living" hits its stride with a long, delightfully dizzy drunk scene. After all, Nel Coward's gaily scandalous 1933 comedy explores a particularly heady brand of romantic intoxication.

"Love among the artists," goes the knowing refrain as three terribly swell friends -- Gilda the decorator, Otto the painter and Leo the playwright -- fall in and out of love.

"Perhaps not love, exactly," Gilda muses as she and Otto tango toward one another while Leo is away. "Something a little below it and a little above it, but something terribly strong."

The cocktail they're in thrall to seems to be equal parts romance and success. The play is a sequence of upward-moving creative triumphs, gorgeously realized in James Noone's period settings that chart the trio's increasingly glamorous course through Paris, London and, naturally, New York.

Each professional accomplishment throws the triangle out of balance, though, so when Gilda leaves her successful men to make her own mark upon the world, Leo and Otto console themselves in drink (and with each other -- it's, um, complicated). It is at that point that Michael Kahn's often pensive production lets down its guard and lets the audience all the way in, thanks especially to some captivating sloshed clowning by Robert Sella as Leo, the flippant playwright who often sounds like old Nel himself.

"Design for Living" is meant to be a grand seduction, with glib, impossibly beautiful people subverting conventional morality and swanning toward shores of romance and luxury that most mortals can only dream of. Until the happy clamor of the drunk scene, the sober show at the Lansburgh Theatre seems content to tease the audience with its opulent veneer, when we'd rather be recruited into its giddy league of freethinkers.

The acting sometimes lapses into the subdued and earnest, which is surely forbidden territory, since an agreeable but square art dealer actually named Ernest (played with cool sense by Kevin Hogan) ultimately becomes the too-obvious butt of Coward's jokes. Even Brooks Atkinson, reviewing the original Broadway production that starred Coward and the great stage couple of the era, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, observed: "Being under no solemn delusions about it, they make 'Design for Living' an actors' lark."

Indeed, the show fares better when it runs like a hungry, remorseless machine, when the extravagant behavior and sophisticated attitudes -- living in what used to be sin; with the men, of course, a bit in love with each other, too -- aren't so much contemplated as simply played. Sella is a marvel in this regard, warming to the task until he seems like a perfect Coward creation, effortlessly charming and elegantly silly.

Gretchen Egolf, too, manages a fetching blend of restiveness and grace. Kahn encourages a bit of lingering as Gilda absorbs her discontents -- she's the last of the trio to find her creative metier, and the audience roots for her as Otto treats her badly. But the sharp-eyed, big-hearted Gilda that Egolf creates is always a persuasive center of gravity for the gents who orbit around her.

Less convincing is Tom Story's Otto, who at times seems as if he hasn't shaken off the fatuousness of his fine Sir Andrew Aguecheek in the company's recent "Twelfth Night." Story's Otto is boyishly petulant and oddly bubbly, 7-Up to Sella's smooth brandy and Egolf's gin; the syrup gums up the triangle a bit.

Still, the supporting performances consistently buoy the action of this three-hour tour. Catherine Flye provides splendid granite-faced disapproval as a moralizing housekeeper, and Todd Scofield makes a nice appearance as a ninny journalist interviewing the hot playwright as Coward takes swipes at the celebrity profile.

The cast looks fabulous in Robert Perdziola's sleek period costumes -- trim tuxes and colorful silk pajamas that flutter just so as the actors breeze across the stage. The design drew applause twice as the curtain rose on the third act, once for Noone's swank Manhattan set and again for Egolf's glittery olive-green dress (just in case you had any doubt that money is a major theme).

The brilliant design conveys a truth about the three appealing eccentrics that the acting occasionally neglects: They aren't real. They are stars.

Design for Living, by Nel Coward. Directed by Michael Kahn. Lighting, Mark McCullough; sound design, Martin Desjardins. With Sherri L. Edelen, Richard Thieriot, Rebecca Kaasa and Nathan Bennett. About three hours.