Backstage: Noël Coward's 'Design for Living' at Shakespeare Theatre Company

Robert Sella, left, Gretchen Egolf and Tom Story bring "Design for Living," the story of complicated love, to the Shakespeare Theatre Company stage.
Robert Sella, left, Gretchen Egolf and Tom Story bring "Design for Living," the story of complicated love, to the Shakespeare Theatre Company stage. (By Scott Suchman)
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Michael Kahn, Shakespeare Theatre Company's artistic director, believes "Design for Living" is less droll than some of Noël Coward's other works. It is, Kahn finds, about real relationships.

"I've always felt this was a very personal play for Noël Coward. I think it's a serious play that's very funny," says Kahn, who is directing the work.

"The comedy," he adds, "comes out of the situations and the people."

The play traces the unsteady arc of a many-sided love affair among the three lead characters: Leo, a playwright; Otto, an artist; and Gilda, their muse and a part-time interior decorator.

To get a sense of how salacious the 1932 play seemed at the time: In London, the show was banned until 1939. "Design for Living" premiered on Broadway in 1933, directed by Coward, who co-starred with his pals Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, America's royal theatrical couple. (The Shakespeare production began previews yesterday and will run through June 28.)

Kahn calls the characters "troubled" people, despite their witty ways.

"This is real life," he says. "In real life, what would happen if you found out your best friend was sleeping with the woman you're living with and [whom] you love -- but you also love your best friend just as much. So it gets complicated. I think nothing's done out of meanness. It's just human frailty."

Despite its pre-World War II setting, Kahn finds the play up-to-the minute. "What's modern about it now is it investigates an issue that still is, for a lot of people, not too usual," he says.

After an Act 1 run-through for donors last week, the patrons watched stagehands execute a seven-minute scenery shift to the luxurious London flat of Act 2, when the characters have begun to achieve success. James Noone's set is a garret/artist's studio in 1920s Paris and not so stark as to lack a fabulous skylight.

Kahn took questions from the audience, as did the actors: Tom Story (who portrays Otto), Robert Sella (Leo), Gretchen Egolf (Gilda) and Kevin Hogan (as art-dealing friend Ernest).

Egolf said she finds the play "heart-wrenchingly human, messy," and that it deals with "stuff a lot of people don't talk about, but want to."

Story judged the whole three-act roundelay -- as characters try to figure out how to live with and/or without one another -- as "still shocking in 2009."

'Mona Lisa' on His Mind

"You don't walk into the Louvre and steal the 'Mona Lisa.' This is not petty theft," states Nigel Reed.

The actor refers to Vincenzo Perugia, the real-life character he plays in "The Woman Who Amuses Herself" by Victor Lodato, opening Friday at H Street Playhouse in a Theater Alliance production. (Theater Alliance just closed another Lodato play, "The Bread of Winter.")

In 1911, Perugia, an Italian carpenter who had come to Paris for work, had been employed on a job at the Louvre. One day, he walked out with Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" under his coat and lived with the fabled painting for more than two years in a Paris flat. Then he took it to his (and Leonardo's) native Italy in what, many believed, was an act of patriotism. (Perugia mistakenly believed Napoleon had stolen the painting. Actually Leonardo gave it to François I.) Perugia served less than a year in prison and was considered a hero by many of his countrymen.

Reed says he must make audiences "find that layer of humanity within this man" and to help them imagine why a lonely immigrant worker became obsessed with the enigmatic portrait of a Renaissance lady. "At some point, an audience member might step back and say: 'Hey pal, it's just paint on a board,' " concedes the actor. "They have to understand . . . how a person, this person, can be so moved by it."

Although Lodato wrote the 2003 play for several actors, the author also notes in the script that it can be done by one actor taking all the parts, which is what Reed is doing, under Kasi Campbell's direction. Some of the characters who turn up to talk about "Mona Lisa" are from more recent times, and their connections to the painting are far different from Perugia's, though their fascination with it nearly equals his -- among them, a British scholar, a third-grade teacher, a 15th-century monk and dadaist/surrealist Marcel Duchamp.

"It's not a linear piece. It's cubist -- juxtaposing characters from one century against the linear line of Perugia's personal journey," says Campbell, who praises Lodato's writing for a lyricism "that doesn't cross over into sentimentalism."

Campbell and Reed, who have worked together often at Rep Stage in Columbia, share a love of museums and art. They both say they find inspiration for their stage work in museums. But they also discovered in rehearsals for "The Woman Who Amuses Herself" that they had similar memories of seeing the "Mona Lisa" as tourists: They found the experience to be distancing.

It was, says Campbell, "about it being under glass and not being able to reach it . . . being pushed and shoved past it." They both felt, she says, "that although we had been to the Louvre and seen the 'Mona Lisa' . . . neither one of us felt we had an emotional connection with her."

So fancy that they're doing a play about a man who had too much of a connection with the lady. And ironic that Perugia had been working at the Louvre covering some of the most priceless works with glass.

Follow Spot

-- Quotidian Theatre Company's 2009-10 season in Bethesda will feature contemporary Irish dramatist Conor McPherson's "Port Authority (Oct. 23-Nov. 22); the late Horton Foote's famed "The Trip to Bountiful" (April 16-May 16, 2010); and Tennessee Williams's rarely performed "A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur" (July 9-Aug. 8, 2010).

© 2009 The Washington Post Company