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May 20, 2009

A Review – “Design for Living"

Roy Meachum

Once upon a time, as all good stories begin, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne epitomized theatrical royalty and this was in the era when the Barrymores were the first family of the stage. Noel Coward's chief claim to that company was that he was a kind of industry jester.


That's how he earned fame. Not until the war years' film "In Which We Serve" could the world take him seriously. That was the world's problem, as I know after seeing Michael Kahn's "Design for Living," at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. The play is a thumb-in-the-eye plea for what my New Orleans childhood labeled Laissez faire. The French phrase's exact translation makes little sense in this sense. More precise is the French Quarter's "do what you want to do and I will do the same."


Set to run until June's last Sunday, Mr. Coward's play was brilliant in its insights and human revelations during the first two acts; it suffered in the final moments because Gilda (Gretchen Egolf) fails to extract any price for going back to a life that pained and frustrated her; not in a sexual sense. And not for a dearth of brilliant badinage; the quips and comments and sarcasm flow free. After all, the work is by Mr. Coward, the 20th century's literary master of all three.


Trading on what we are told was his strong attachment to the theatre's king and queen, the play forthrightly proclaims that Ms. Fontanne's husband shared her charms with best friend and soul mate, Mr. Coward. The only jealousy in the evening arises when they don't keep each other informed, in detail, of what's exactly going on every second they're not intimately connected. That results in not only misunderstandings but rampant paranoia.


While the civilized world accepted-there was no report of broken windows and burned theatres – the premise that men could love each other in a sexual way, it was altogether not ready for the specifics of their bedroom rituals. In the Depression era, homosexuality was still unable to "speak its name." Seventy years later, most people are not fully prepared for more than general simulation.


As a result, Ms. Egolf "owns" the stage for the first two-thirds of the evening. And Mr. Kahn has come up with a perfect actor for the part. When the script is getting all the necessary exposition in, her manner and body language keep the show moving right along. I simply cannot imagine anyone else delivering certain royal lines with her shoes off and a definite bounce in evidence.


Don't mistake me: Robert Sella and Tom Story are very well chosen; the actors are patently intelligent and lithe enough; they zing out Mr. Coward's dialogue in polished fashion. They have mastered director Kahn's choreography. They are very attractive young men, both genders would agree. But early in the evening I played the mental game of switching them into each other's part; it was possible.


When she has the substance to work with, Gretchen Egolf makes it gloriously work. She drops out with the "boys'" riotous drunk scene that demonstrates Mr. Kahn's talent at its best. I don't mean to slight the players; their contributions are great. But when all is said and done, the director has much more to say and do!


The third act is a quick tidy up to enable the author to make his final point: love conquers all, especially conventionalities.


Costume designer Robert Perdziola devised dresses for Ms. Egolf that are smashingly contemporary; he even remembers to put a seam in the hosiery. His neo-Egyptian themes reflect the first King Tut-mania that roared along with the Roaring Twenties. When first revealed, James Noone's set and scenery brought gasps and applause from the audience.


Bravo to all who operate back stage; they have done splendidly by the production.


"Design for Living" will crackle and pop on stage at Seventh Street's Lansburgh Theatre until June 28. It ranks high on my list of satisfying, intriguing and compelling works. Furthermore, the audience spent a lot of laughing moments.


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