Design For Living

We caught Design for Living about a month ago or so, but as it's still playing I can put in my two cents's worth.

Unlike Lear (see post below), every actor's performance in this show is well-observed and the text milked for all it's worth. This is because Michael Kahn is directing, and he's a truly marvelous director for actors. Best in the biz as far as I'm concerned.

It's also an example of a show with a witty design concept and fabulous costumes where these elements are at the service of the text and action, not distracting from it --and I say that even though the curtain rise at the top of the third act garnered enthusiastic applause just for the set (never seen that happen before).

Nevertheless, my feeling is this play is just dated. It's about a ménage à trois. In the first act the gal is "with" the one fellow but sleeps with the other. The "wronged" lad stalks off so in the second act she's "with" the second fellow (he proposes, but she refuses to marry --it's against her principles), but sleeps with the other. Then she stalks off, so guess who's going to be together in the third act?

Supposedly Noel Coward was afraid to debut the play in London because of the censors, but it was a hit on Broadway in 1932. I don't know what to make of that --why people weren't offended-- but I am guessing that in 1932 the final act was considered farce. When the gal abandons her two paramours at the end of the second act, the two lead actors have a truly hilarious drunk scene, very well-played (which only made me realize that we don't "do" drunk scenes in the arts anymore, anymore than we do smoking). Total drunkenness is the excuse for the two men "getting together," and in the third act they are so over-the-top stereotypically "gay" (think Jack Lemmon in drag in "Some Like It Hot"), I can imagine the play passed with many people for that reason. Just a romp.

The male lovers high it to New York to collect their third, treating her stalwart and conventional husband both rudely and cruelly as they assert their right to separate him from his bride and live unconventionally. I don't get the sense Coward is on the lovers' side, incidentally --the protagonists assert a kind of Nietzschean superiority to conventional morality: "We're Artists, the rules don't apply to us," but he lets us see how ugly and selfish they are and how utterly they betray the less gifted man whose honest labor has made each of their separate careers possible. They're ugly, frivolous, ungrateful people and we know it in the end.

Is that the price of art? Transgression? The curtain comes down without an answer, but in any event, such behavior can't play as farce anymore; selfish loving --and assertion of the right to it-- is too commonplace. Nothing to criticize in the execution, but I didn't enjoy the play --not even in the grudging way you enjoy a show that's well done even if you know it's seditious (like Dead Poet's Society). My three companions agreed; the other couple ducked out of the show early on grounds of tedium. "Ubermenschen" are just so predictable.