It was a mistake to insinuate that "Gracious Living" was going to bring back the drawing-room comedy. Many theater-goers have been waiting for that event. You can hear them, as they stream out of Noel Coward revivals, all asking, "Why doesn't anyone write plays like that any more?"
With its title, its author, its actresses and its sets - there are two drawing rooms by Oliver Smith, both with cornice moldings - "Gracious Living" raised some hopes. That was before it opened at the Eisenhower Theater. After it opened, it only raised points about why nobody ever writes good drawing-room comedies any more.
Gracious Living" is a trivial but not unpleasant piece that has been written many times before. An ageing and agreeably vain theatrical couple find themselves with no income and expensive tastes; after being midly tempted, they elect love (and bit parts) over financial security.
Not all of the actress' lines are "You were mahhvelous, dahhling," but Tammy Grimes says them all that way. All of Paul Hecht's lines as the actor are either "Not bad, that," as he smacks champagne, or "You know, I've played that scene before - where was it?" But he enlivens them by patting his well-coiffed gray hair.
That it's not the actors' fault that the play isn't funny is proven by Patricia Routledge, who plays a passing fancy on a return trip. She is funny; that is, she acts funny, but her character still doesn't succeed in being funny. And that brings us back to how not to write a drawing-room comedy, because the fault here is with the playwright, Samuel Taylor, author of "Sabrina Fair" and "The Pleasure of His Company."
"Drawing room" stands for upper class. The middle classes have living rooms for show and family rooms for use; the lower classes have front parlors for show and kitchens for use. The luxury of the rich consists of their being able to use their best furniture themselves.
One reason they make good comic characters is that they're fun to watch, with their pretty clothes and houses and quaint customs. But the most important reason is that while the poor all have the same problem, the rich can afford to invent their own.
"Gracious Living" is written about characters who do not belong to Oliver Smith drawing rooms, in either style or aspirations. The hero is an actor who has hardly heard of Shakespeare, who would rather have a flattering role than a meaty one and who is constantly talking about champagne in the manner of brand-name-conscious social climbers. Hog heaven, for him, would be advertising wines instead of aspirin. The heroine's favorite brand name is "Rolls-Royce." And significant line is her reminding her husband to carry their luggage out of the Savoy Hotel - neither of them, or the playwright either, it seems, is well-enough acquainted with high living to know that luxury hotels employ people to do this.
It's not snobbery that makes one long for a better class of people in this play; it's the fact that satirizing people who hope to make it commercially in order to pay for a bunch of status symbols requires neither deftness nor wit. It is those two weapons that audiences miss.