Tuesday, January 9, 2007

We all loved each other so much

Gabriel Kuttner, Susanne Nitter, and Diego Arciniegas design their
own love seat in Design for Living. Photo by Scott Clyve.

Noel Coward only had one great scene, really - declining love betrayed. But luckily for us, in Design for Living, he gets to write it three times, from three different angles, as a romantic triangle folds into a ménage à trois. And the actors in the new production by the Publick Theater, under the direction of Spiro Veloudos, generally play the hell out of all three versions.

In a way, the thesps have to - they're among Boston's best, but sorry, you couldn't really say they're designed for Coward. Susanne Nitter looks smart in Chanel, and Diego Arciniegas can throw off Latin sparks when he wants, but neither is quite luxe enough for roles that were originally written for the Lunts and Coward himself. And as for Gabriel Kuttner - well, he conjures up comfortable old shoes far more than spats. Luckily, however, the guy can truly act.

Which brings me to what's so très, très amusante about this particular production - it doesn't depend on the cold emotional chrome of so much Coward. Its glamour gap is its secret weapon - the damn thing's heartfelt! The director (and cast) have made some noise about the relevance of Coward's romantic arrangements to today's debate on gay marriage, but their production actually belies the parallel. Coward's characters disdain marriage, and their show isn't about sex, gay/bi or otherwise - it is, it turns out, about affection. And that's what makes it so improbably affecting. I know Leo loves Otto and Otto loves Leo and both say they love Gilda and she says hey, guys, same here; but this is the first production I've seen of Design for Living in which I actually believed them.

Or at least, believed them as far as one can believe such fatuous egoists. Design for Living is more in love with success than anything - or anyone - else. Its social-climbing protagonists could star in some gay Ayn Rand opus, they're so handsome and talented - and surprise, everything they've got is for sale (except, of course, their hearts!). Needless to say, these were Coward's attitudes, too; in fact, Design for Living is more or less Noel's Guide to Being Noel, and as many have pointed out, the script wasn't just his ode to the Lunts, it was all about his jones for the Lunts (particularly Alfred).

But if Art and Life are in a lip-lock throughout the play, Leo and Otto aren't (at least not in this production). Despite his brave words, director Veloudos toes the 30's-era line on sexual propriety; there's plenty of coy double entendre in the last act, but nothing else French (much less Greek!). I admit I did miss the rising sexual chemistry between Diego and Gabriel when they tied one on and then got it on - but the scene's so funny as a piece of comic acting that you don't really care. Kuttner in particular is something of a miracle; Arciniegas is superb, but still depends on tiny technical tricks to structure his intoxication - meanwhile Kuttner just gets drunker before our eyes; in fact, his performance throughout is a kind of model of spontaneous, internal acting.

This isn't to slight Susanne Nitter (who's overdue for some local awards, btw). Although she's a bit adrift in the cross-currents of her opening scene (along with Nigel Gore, her partner), Nitter soon finds her sea legs and brings a touching note of rue to her role. And like her co-stars, she has a wonderful way with Coward's repartee - for once, the play's celebrated, self-indulgent wit really does tickle us like bubbles in champagne.

There are, however, a few more scenes that don't quite pop the way they should. A cool self-critique is always floating through this playwright's best work (and if Design isn't quite the cream of Coward, it's still at the bottom of the top drawer). Veloudos, however, elicits this chill only occasionally, and only from Nitter - there's a curious dialogue between Leo and a reporter, for instance, that should hint at a certain vacuum beneath everyone's shiny veneer. The production also doesn't look quite as swank as we'd like; the BCA Plaza Theatre's low ceiling defeats the lighting designer, and I didn't quite buy the set designer's Matisse motif (even if the great painter is mentioned in the play). After all, Coward is about gloss, while Matisse is about grace (and next to Matisse, Coward does look alarmingly second-rate).

Alas, the production also wraps on a slightly sour note; Veloudos doesn't know what to make of the curious finale. Here Coward runs his umpteenth variation on his second best scene: The Bohemians Tell Off the Bourgeoisie. This time, however, Coward presses into service (on the bourgeois side) Otto's art dealer, whom Nigel Gore plays (plausibly, if timorously) as a closeted gay man. This final, blithe irony makes for rather a sketchy sketch, if you ask me: the semi-closeted Coward factotum disses the - er - slightly more closeted Coward factotum. It's perhaps telling that, despite his talent for emotional escape, Coward's dazzling web of personae tripped him up before the final curtain.


  1. I know Leo loves Otto and Otto loves Leo and both say they love Gilda and she says hey, guys, same here; but this is the first production I've seen of Design for Living in which I actually believed them.

    Agreed. But I'm curious. How much of this emotion can Coward's work stand? Does the structure and its effect, (not affect,) begin to crumble slightly if we take these people too seriously?

    I agree that the last scene is tricky one, and a little unsettling in this production. But in this case could it perhaps be because our investment in the characters and their hurts and sufferings bleeds over into Ernest and we kind of see his point?

    Why should we laugh at him with the threesome, when we have been asked to take them seriously?

    Although it does make a more complicated attack on social norms, can Coward's work sustain that type of mission.

    Just curious.

  2. In general I've found that Coward works best when real emotions are at stake - even though, of course, Coward is all about the fact that passion is fleeting! But then, that's the trick to directing Coward, isn't it - enough, but not too much, emotional identification with the characters. As for the final exchange, there IS a way out of the quandary if the art dealer is shown to be even more in the thrall of surfaces than the central trio. Then in the finale they can be seen as honestly transcending what he represents. But this would also require a more graphic physical love scene from the two men. Without that, we feel that the play is still in the closet somehow, so its mocking the closet looks hypocritical.

    (Thanks, by the way, for helping me clarify that point.)

  3. you are a bit of a cunt old son. a pretentious one to boot.

  4. Sorry if anyone was offended by the c-word, but I am just tickled pink by that nutbag. I HAD to publish her comment! In fact, in her honor (she may be my most loyal reader) I'm pondering changing the title of this blog from "Hub Review" to "Pretentious Cunt Review".