Reviewed by Will Stackman
Usually remembered as a three-person play focused on its polyamourous romantic triangle, Sir Noel Coward's "Design for Living", which premiered in 1932 as a vehicle for the playwright and his friends the Lunts, actually has a cast of eight, one of whom is the fourth character in the emotional minefield simmering just below the farce. In this current production, Susanne Nitterand Diego Arciniegas, the current Directors of the Publick Theatre which normally performs outdoors in the summer, welcome Gabriel Kuttner, who appeared there in July and August as Wil Shaxpur, and Nigel Gore who played Prof. Nightingale in Publick's award-winning production of "Arcadia" the season before opposite Nitter's Hannah. Gore spent last summer as Claudius for Shakespeare & Co. incidentally.
Nitter is Gilda, an interior designer, one of Lynn Fontanne's signature roles, while Kuttner plays Otto, a painter, Alfred Lunt's part. Arciniegas is Leo, a playwright -- Coward of course -- with Gore playing Ernest Gilda's art dealer friend, whom she marries by the third act. This part was originated by Campbell Gudnall, a Scottish actor/director of Coward's acquaintance. The first act, set in Paris, is loosely based on Cowards' time with the Lunts in New York when they are all "bright young things." The show was directed by Spiro Veloudos, the Artistic Director of the Lyric Stage, who incidentally helmed the Publick for several years a number of summers ago.
What other autobiographical elements the playwright may have included has always been a matter of conjecture, but the close personal relationships which drive the action require that the four main characters mesh intimately. Nitter, Gore, Kuttner, and Arciniegas do. Nitter, who was admirable as the chorus of one last summer in "Copenhagen", directed by Arciniegas in which Kuttner played Heisenberg, is the female energy around which the three men revolve, with Ernest being spun away as the three lovers collapse on the couch at the final curtain.
Coward's creations always requires actors who can play off each other but in "Design for Living" there's method behind the giddiness. As a counterweight, for the second act there's Miss 'odge, Gilda and Leo's London housekeeper, played as Shavian low comedy by peripetatic Beth Gotha. In the third, there's last summer's Heminge, Richard Arum, up and coming Janelle Mills, and Jocelyn Parrish, a summer stock veteran, as three of Gilda's crass New York friends. Salem State grad Paul Melendy has two cameos as a blundering Fleet St. grub and Gilda's snooty New York houseman. The three worlds of the play - Paris, London, and New York - could represent the past, the present and the future, seen as youthful ambition, commercial artistic success, and hopefully, personal fulfillment.
Rather than try to emphasize the play's contemporary--or is it timeless--appeal by modernizing its look, costumer Rafael Jaen from Emerson dresses the cast for the early '30s with careful tailoring and a palette which reflects the emotional characteristics of each character. For the set, a common interior for all three acts, Harvard's J.Michael Griggs has gotten bolder, painting the walls and floor after Matisse, with splashes of color as well on Act 1's mismatched furniture for Gilda and Otto's studio. These disappear in Act 2 for Gilda and Leo's London flat, to be replaced by decorative accents in the more respectable decor. By Act 3 in Gilda and Ernest's New York elegant penthouse, things become more austere and the furniture more expensive, though her pale green evening dress harks to earlier mentions in the play. Leo and Otto's period tailoring is accurate and complete, with the latter in painterly earth tones and the former in blues and browns. Ernest's progressively more elegant suits all have a touch of green. Scott Clyve's lighting design provides a discrete and comfortable glow to the proceedings.
Veloudos, one of Boston's most respected directors, has used obvious ease among this core quartet, plus their considerable experience and training, create a Coward production that is both respectful and fresh, and more importantly believable. The audience is drawn into the heartaches of this unconventional comedy of manners while laughing along with their antics and bon mots. The autobiographical elements present from its creation in the '30s pose a particular challenge. "Design for Living" doesn't have the brittleness of the author's more popular "Private Lives" and is consequently more difficult. This presentation makes the intrigue look easy, however. And the venerable environs of the BCA's oldest theatre never better.