'Design for Living' is designed for a good time

Circle Theatre gives Noel Coward's three-sided romance a sophisticated, sexy edge

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A 72-year-old play by Noel Coward might seem an odd choice for Circle Theatre, that live-wire troupe known for its hip, cutting edge productions. After all, aren't Coward's comedies light and bubbly, like champagne?

Yes, but Design For Living is darker, deeper and offers more to think about than, say, Blithe Spirit or Private Lives. As the playwright's ode to unorthodox love, it scandalized 1930s audiences. Perhaps only now can this sexy, sophisticated show come into its own.

See, Gilda loves Otto. Otto loves Leo. Leo loves Gilda. Leo loves Otto. Otto loves Gilda.

You get the idea. It's a messy love triangle, a steamy ménage à trois among upper-class British bohemians. Gilda, a free-spirit interior decorator, adores her two best friends, Otto the would-be painter and Leo the rising-star playwright. Gilda and Otto live together in unmarital bliss, although she's currently having a secret affair with Leo, their close mutual friend. Eventually Leo and Otto, who'd met first, turn to each other for comfort.

Their three-way relationship exists in a sleek art-deco world where everyone constantly pours drinks from cut-glass decanters and dresses oh-so-elegantly in silk smoking jackets and bias-cut evening gowns. Gilda, Leo and Otto provide non-stop witty repartee.

A little of this might go a long way. But we're in good hands here. Director Jim Schneider thoroughly understands Design For Living. He presents us with a glossy production that's neither a mummified museum piece nor a dumbed-down sitcom. Schneider recreates the era of double intermissions and double entendre with spirit and panache.

Coward wrote this play as a star vehicle for himself and his best friends and business partners, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The show was thought actually to be about the three of them, which adds a certain historical intrigue if you enjoy showbiz legends.

There is, frankly, little action. This is not a plot-driven piece. Audiences before television had longer attention spans. In lesser hands, the opening act might have come off as plodding and long-winded. But the superb ensemble is so energized we're immediately captivated by these three self-absorbed drama queens.

Coward's dialogue has not been tampered with, but perhaps Schneider has heightened the bisexual undertones more than the playwright could have gotten away with. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, as they used to say on Seinfeld.) I imagine in the original production the attraction between Otto and Leo was no more than just a veiled suggestion. I suspect Coward and Lunt did not kiss on the lips. I also doubt there was the fleeting glimpse of male nudity we witness in Act 3. After all, this show was written in 1933. Yes, Coward loved to push the sexual envelope. But he never flaunted his own gayness. Remember, at the time homosexuality was still a criminal offense in England.

Simone Roos makes a glamorous Gilda. She's tempestuous and immature. The play and both men she loves revolve around her. But her constantly shifting affections show her need to find fulfillment on her own rather than serve as muse for these two aspiring artists.

P. J. Schoeny charms with a broad range as Otto. As Leo, Bradford R. Lund is coldly reptilian one moment, lovable the next. He also gets the best lines. Needless to say, this role was the one originally played by Coward.

A scene where the two inseparable buddies drink heavily, flirt madly, and discover their mutual attraction is especially funny.

We know Leo and Otto have the hots for each other. They seem to enjoy one another more than they do Gilda. Yes, she intoxicates them and the trio is inseparable. But the men's romantic involvement with Gilda strains the imagination, which is probably exactly what Coward intended.

Peter Esposito is priceless as a prissy, stuffed-shirt art dealer, the trio's perpetual fourth wheel.

The rest of the cast also shines. Patti
Roeder is a hoot as a housekeeper who's constantly dismayed by the amorous goings-on.

Quite simply, Otto, Gilda and Leo can't live together and can't live apart. So the three come to terms with their love for each other by concocting their own "design for living," a plan for a radically unique domestic arrangement.

As the restless threesome become increasingly more successful, Bob Knuth's three fully realized sets are stunning to behold. The London flat has art-glass windows, wine-colored velour furniture and deco wall sconces. The posh penthouse in Manhattan looks like it's from a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical. The painted scrim that serves as the stage curtain features three oversized vintage postcards for Paris, London and New York, the settings for each of the three acts. Amazingly, the set changes occur swiftly during two brief intermissions.

The clipped British accents are consistent and credible. Darrelyn Marx was the dialect coach.

Peter Storms' sound design includes vintage recordings of Coward's songs to enliven the intermissions.

Chris Arnold is assistant director. Beth Scheible is stage manager.

The play lasts two and a half hours, counting the two intermissions.

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