There have been many things said about playwright Noel Coward over the years, but here's one more: his last name is one of the best red herrings of all time. The prolific writer and artist was unafraid to tackle topics that were considered risqué and unspeakable, as proved by his somewhat forgotten 1932 play Design for Living which is practically a love letter for adultery, bisexuality, and other acts which are viewed unwholesome by many. And yet through his wit and humor, Coward not only got away with it but created a runaway hit that ran on Broadway for five months, a healthy run for a play even by todays standards.
While the subject matter is still shocking even 80 some years later, the fact remains that Design for Living is still an incredibly enjoyable and funny farce, as the current production by Austin Shakespeare shows. You may not understand or like the main characters, but you will undoubtedly enjoy Coward's signature style and his brutal honesty.
Coward's play focuses on three friends and artists. At the start, interior designer Gilda (Helen Merino) is living with her beau, a painter by the name of Otto (Michael Miller) but has had an affair with playwright Leo (Martin Burke) who happens to be their good friend and Otto's former boyfriend. Over the next several years, the three continually hurt and anger each other and despite their best efforts are continually intertwined in what one character refers to as a "disgusting, three-sided erotic hotch-potch."
Calling the three lead characters flawed would be a gross understatement. These characters are downright awful people. They say they love each other deeply, but it's doubtful they even love themselves or understand the meaning of the word. They purposefully jab and bruise each other and do not seem to care about anyones emotions or fulfillment but their own. They are all self-serving egotists, and even George and Martha from Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would suggest that these three see a psychologist.
That said, when armed with Coward's witty dialogue, they are somehow likeable despite still being unsympathetic. Part of that is owed to the performances by the three principal actors and director Ann Ciccolella's focus on developing the friendships between them. Merino is perfection as Gilda, the stronger-willed one of the bunch. Miller is fantastic as Otto, especially in the first act where he gets one of the piece's few dramatic monologues. Though Miller has a flare for the dramatic, his comedic timing is spot on as well. And Austin favorite Martin Burke is hysterical as Leo. When the three are paired together, there is a palatable energy and electricity on the stage. While it's clear that these people should cut their losses and go their separate ways, you know they never will.
The supporting cast is equally strong. Kathy Lagaza is a riot as the housekeeper in act two, and Michael Dalmon is superb as Ernest, a friend of the main three and the sole voice of reason in the play. Ciccolella's decision to include short musical interludes in the two intermissions is quite fun and greatly showcases the talents of chanteuse Kara Bliss and pianist Jason Connor. And in true Austin Shakespeare form, the look and feel of the play is flawless. Haydee Antunano provides some exquisitely tailored suits and gowns, Emilie Houssart's set is a throwback to the 1920s and 1930s Art Deco movement, Jason Amato's lighting is subtle but lush, and voice consultant Nancy Eyermann has created an authentically Brittish sound.
While you may not like the main characters, there's much to like about Design for Living. The talented cast understands that with a wink, a smile, some witty Noel Coward dialogue, and a healthy swallow of brandy, they can get away with practically anything, including turning three heinously self-serving characters into people that easily fascinate the audience.
Run time: Approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes, including two 10 minute intermissions.
DESIGN FOR LIVING plays the Rollins Theater at The Long Center for the Performing Arts now thru February 24th.
Performances are Thursday thru Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $17-$34.
For tickets and information, please visit www.austinshakespeare.org