Design for Living

You're darling!

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 13.03.2008

Paris, London, New York – these are not the strategic stops in a fashionista’s busy diary, but the three cities Noël Coward’s bohemians are sailing through in Design for Living: an artist’s studio in Paris gives way to a stylish London flat, while the final setting is a splendid New York penthouse that exudes both serious money and tasteful choices.

The comedy, which is currently showing at the Capucins theatre, is about a love triangle between Otto, Leo and Gilda. It premiered in New York in January 1933, with the author himself as Leo, the playwright whose sudden success turns his life into a whirl of cocktail parties and country-house weekends. Clearly, there is an autobiographical element to it all!

Since Leo is increasingly solicited by journalists and other celebrity hunters, Gilda, who left Otto, the painter, for Leo and has been sharing his life for a year and a half, feels lost. In the end she leaves again, this time in order to marry Ernest, the slightly older wealthy art dealer who has long been friends with the three of them. Yet her escape is not as straightforward as it looks. As Leo warned Gilda in Act I: “The actual facts are so simple. I love you. You love me. You love Otto. I love Otto. Otto loves you. Otto loves me. There now!” The three of them are bound to be drawn together again in this unique and very private game of musical chairs.

Design for Living is a premiere for Luxembourg: Douglas Rintoul, a British director, has come here to work on an English-language production with Luxembourg actors as the three lead characters. Jules Werner and Tom Leick both trained in London, so to them it must feel like a kind of homecoming, whereas Myriam Muller steps into new territory. In Act I she plays Gilda as a doll-like fidgety creature who uses torrents of bubbly words to cover up her uneasiness and drown poor Ernest (David Phelan) in confusion. By Act II she has fully grown into the part, and when she faces Ernest again, this time in London, the production picks up speed and buzzes with delicious comedy. Ernest is desperate to find out what is going on, yet his tentative, measured approach will get him nowhere. There are further comic interludes triggered by the presence of Miss Hodge (Ann Comfort, who has been one of the stars of the New World Theatre Club for years), the comic housemaid who disapproves of Gilda’s partner-swapping.

Another highlight of the evening is the sparkling double act Otto (Jules Werner) and Leo (Tom Leick) put on in the final scene. When they appear out of the blue at the New York penthouse the now married Gilda shares with Ernest, they swiftly take over. Gilda has finally started a career of her own as a successful interior decorator and is entertaining three rich American friends/clients. Soon the two intruders start playing a game intended to confuse the latter. Their tailcoats and stylised acting have touches of the music-hall, while their comments cut through the Americans’ vapid small talk.When Ernest, who has been away on business, comes back the following morning and confronts them, his pique cannot hold out against their suave insouciance and languorous ease. And then, his stumble over some wrapped-up modern art triggers the final laughter that unites the threesome once more and makes Gilda’s dull but dependable husband the odd one out. Only an avant-garde Matisse may comfort him now. 

Douglas Rintoul directs an elegant and nuanced production in which the different characters grow on stage as they go through various emotional setbacks and have to grapple with contradictory feelings. The acting is precise, versatile and full of panache.

Great care has been taken with the three fully realised sets as well as the clothes. Even Gilda’s hairstyles may serve as an indication of her changing circumstances, with the loose pageboy eventually making way for more sophisticated, bouffant American hair. In spite of the occasional rather saccharine passage, Coward’s text succeeds in moving beyond the period-piece feel with the questions it raises about conformity, personal freedom and celebrity. The deep melancholy underneath the laughter is both touching and disturbing.

Design for Living, Théâtre des Capucins, March 14, 18, 19 and April 10, 11; Internet:

Janine Goedert
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