Cigarette holders, silk dressing gowns, brandy snifters, stiff upper lips, deco for days: Noel Coward’s Design for Living is about as mannered a comedy of manners as exists in the canon, so it’s refreshing to find it feeling down-to-earth and even a bit cuddly in Michael Kahn’s staging at the Lansburgh Theatre.
A chronicle of tempestuous relations amongst three young bohemians—playwright Leo, portraitist Otto, and their mutual muse Gilda—Design was written by Coward as a starring vehicle for himself and that golden couple of Broadway, the Lunts. Also as a playfully pointed, mid-Depression rumination on the emotional price of success. His protagonists—thirtysomething adolescents stumbling eagerly into fame and fortune—are as full of themselves as they are of joie de vivre, and they’re woefully unprepared for the consequences when their little love triangle flops onto each of its sides in turn.
That triangle—considered shocking enough in 1932 that British censors blocked a West End production for seven years—can’t be expected to raise many eyebrows today. But the plot’s machinations are still fun, especially when designer James Noone has been given the resources to augment them with a little 1930s design porn. He brings up the curtain on a spectacularly shabby Parisian garret, all streaked glass and light, then trumps it first with wood-paneled, heavily draped, marble-columned deco in London, and then with chromed, glittering, structural deco in New York. Glorious overkill throughout—hell, his floral arrangments are a show in themselves.
Amidst the splendor, Kahn does what he can to make the free-spirited twerps at the play’s center come across less as egocentric monsters than as bright-eyed, overgrown children: Robert Sella as Leo (the part Coward wrote for himself) nattering about his own reviews and positively reveling in self-pity, Tom Story’s puppyish Otto ever ready to nurse wounds that haven’t yet been inflicted, and Gretchen Egolf’s Gilda flitting coquettishly between them.
I confess I was initially puzzled about what Leo and Otto see in Gilda; she’s too uncomfortable in her own skin to be easy to cozy up to. Egolf sure makes her ravishing. The audience gasps when costumer Robert Perdziola sheathes her in shimmering green silk—but for a time she doesn’t have much to define her beyond her oft-remarked allure. It’s when she’s allowed to stop fluttering and be still for a moment that something else comes into focus: Without her presence to ground them, her airily self-absorbed confrères might well drift right up past the proscenium arch and into the ether.
Other characters are on hand mostly as dullards for the leads to mock, so count it an accomplishment that Kevin Hogan’s primly paternal art dealer Ernest and Catherine Flye’s dottily disapproving maid register as folks who could conceivably have lives offstage. Wit-deprived, they can’t skate across the surface of emotions as the leads do, and—in Ernest’s case, particularly—are consequently left to wallow in feeling.
Even the leads do a bit of wallowing in Act Two, but happily, before the comedy can melt into outright melodrama, Coward gets Leo and Otto roaring drunk, and they skate tipsily back into safer comic territory.
Legacy of Light By Karen Zacarias; Directed by Molly Smith At Arena Stage Crystal City to June 14
You have to figure the folks at Arena Stage are cursing their timing with Legacy of Light. If you’re going to premiere a comedy that alternates scenes of bed-hopping, apple-chomping, Newtonian-physics-debating, Age-of-Enlightenment figures with modern-day sequences in which their present-day relatives cavort and debate along similar lines, you probably don’t want to position your opening just one week after critics have raved over an exhilarating mounting of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.
’T’ain’t fair. But can’t be helped.
Stoppard’s opus, remember, features aristocratic friends of Lord Byron and a precocious teen mathematician who alternate—and eventually share—scenes with dueling present-day literary academics, arguing over everything from the Second Law of Thermodynamics and academic overreaching to grouse hunting and landscaping trends.
Karen Zacarias’ world premiere centers on 18th century literary lights Voltaire (Stephen Schnetzer) and his physicist mistress Emilie du Chatelet (Lise Bruneau), as well as her aristocratic hubby (Michael Russotto) and their precocious 15-year-old daughter (Lindsey Kyler). And they alternate—and eventually share—scenes with present-day astrophysicist Olivia (Carla Harting) and her teacher hubby (Russotto again), as well as a young woman (Kyler again) they’ve choosen as birth mother for the baby Olivia can’t have. Legacy of Light mostly concerns itself with motherhood and gender equality, but Zacarias also finds time to reference the gardens at Versailles, the mysteries of dark matter, and a variety of literary reputations.
In short, we’re traipsing through some awfully familiar theatrical territory in the company of a local dramatist who is clever, resourceful and has clearly done her homework, but who—and I don’t mean this in any way unkindly—should really not have to suffer close comparison with the most brilliant wordsmith currently working in the English-speaking theater. At least not yet.
The storyline of Legacy of Light involves two 42-year-old women some three centuries apart, who have intriguingly paralleled pregnancies. Emilie’s is unwanted and dangerous, the result of an illicit liaison with a sexy young poet (David Covington). Olivia’s is sought-after and surrogated when ovarian cancer makes it impossible for the astrophysicist to be a birth mother.
Zacarias has come to some pointed conclusions about the effects of social and personal attitudes on the choices of her characters. The 18th-century pregnancy spurs Emilie into a burst of scientific creativity, while the 21st-century one effectively stalls Olivia’s work; Kyler evokes markedly different anxieties in women she plays in two eras who risk losing out on the benefits of a Paris education.
Alas, while the play’s outline is sharp, the dialogue with which the playwright has filled in that outline often isn’t. Take a moment in which Emilie’s young lover responds to the arrival of Voltaire in their bedchamber with a furious “I am a member of the King’s court. How dare you burst through a gentlewoman’s chamber.”
Voltaire’s riposte—and remember, this is the most original thinker of his age: “How dare your member burst through my gentlewoman’s court?”
“Enough wit,” Emilie admonishes, but seriously….not by half.
Design elements are capably handled, especially one eye-popping 18th-century gown from costumer Linda Cho, but Molly Smith’s generally frisky staging isn’t always deft. She’s allowed the performers to speechify when the author gets up on her soapbox, and there’s a lot of leaning on punchlines and labored.
Still, credit the director with getting the play up on its feet. And credit Arena with nurturing through extensive workshops a work that traffics in ideas of considerable complexity. What Legacy of Light most needs now—if it’s not to be an evening of clever leaps and flat-footed landings—is lightness.