A success de scandale in its 1933 premiere, "Design for Living," Noel Coward's mordantly dark and delicious defense of non-traditional romantic arrangements or what one character scathingly calls "a three-sided erotic hodgepodge" still carries weight in these neo-puritanical times.
Coward starred in the first production with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and the persistent rumors that America's most famous acting couple and the darling of the English stage were themselves involved in such an entanglement surely boosted box office.
Jim Schneider's staging for Circle Theatre strains to get aloft occasionally, and the too-low-to-the-ground proscenium playing area makes several crucial sofa tete-a-tetes hard to see past the first row. But when the actors are in sync, Coward's dizzying repartee and discursive discussions of art, commerce, science, love, marriage (and the many reasons to avoid it) bubble and pop like a firecracker in a bowl of champagne punch.
As Gilda, the interior decorator with a decidedly unfinished interior life, Simone Roos is more assured playing brittle charm than restless neurotic eroticism. It's the latter quality that inspires her serial love affairs, first with Otto (P.J. Schoeny), an idealistic and slightly puppyish painter, and then with waspish newly successful playwright Leo (a sterling Bradford R. Lund), who had themselves been lovers earlier. Gilda has more than a touch of the desperate self-delusion that drives Sally Bowles in "Cabaret," and if Roos can find ways to let that disorder seep through her ordered exterior, the production will be the better for it. (In a nice touch, the portrait of Gilda that hangs in each of Bob Knuth's lovely and detailed settings Paris, London and Manhattan shows her looking over her shoulder, befitting a woman who's always halfway out the door.)
Schoeny grows markedly better over the course of the play his despair at finding Gilda and Leo lustfully entangled in the first act feels forced. But by the third act, he and Lund are perfectly matched as they challenge Gilda, now married to a fusty closeted art dealer, to give up her respectable (and stultifying) American life in order to pursue the dream of happily unwed life abroad.
Schneider understands that Coward's play ends on an ambiguous note the threesome sprawled together on a sofa, united once again, howling with hysteria. But after all, for these unapologetic and endearing hedonists, past pain and uncertain future must not be admitted as impediments to present laughter.
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