The playwright's vaunted repartee is mostly MIA, and the earring lodged conspicuously in Alan Cumming's right eyebrow is <I>quite</I> unforgivable, but let's not quibble: The Roundabout Theater Co.'s revival of Noel Coward's "Design for Living" is a sensational show.

The playwright’s vaunted repartee is mostly MIA, and the earring lodged conspicuously in Alan Cumming’s right eyebrow is quite unforgivable, but let’s not quibble: The Roundabout Theater Co.’s revival of Noel Coward’s “Design for Living” is a sensational show.

There is plenty of delicious surface glitter to enjoy — behold Robert Brill’s sleek deco palace in the second act, or the luscious silks of Bruce Pask’s vibrantly colored costumes — but the real achievement of Joe Mantello’s production is to find the enduring emotional grit in a play too often dismissed as a frivolous romp. Add a trio of young performers who bring to the stage qualities increasingly absent from entertainment of any kind — glamour, wit and sophistication, plus sex appeal of several varieties — and you’ve got a recipe for theatrical heaven. The only question is whether a wide audience will be ready to embrace Mantello’s exquisitely moody take on a play whose stature in the Coward canon continues to rise.

First produced on Broadway in 1933, in a production starring Coward and the Lunts, “Design for Living” had a superficial naughtiness that has naturally faded with time. The tale of a trio of London’s bright young things ricocheting into one another’s bedrooms with a gay (gasp!) disregard for social convention, it also charts the rise in fortunes of two of its three characters, the playwright Leo (Dominic West) and the painter Otto (Alan Cumming). The third pole in the play’s romantic triangle is decorator Gilda (Jennifer Ehle), who is as suspicious of success as she is of her own ever-shifting emotional states.

Mantello’s production resolutely scrubs away much of the dialogue’s surface sparkle. Sometimes, it’s true, this is effected with an excessively heavy hand: Must Ehle’s Gilda always rap out her flippantly cheery remarks with a mechanical moroseness that overplays the irony? Nonetheless, the director’s approach illuminates the searching subtexts of the play, which concern the pain that comes with knowledge of love’s complexity, and the chaos that can ensue when the heart is opened to all life’s possibilities.

That chaos is reflected literally in the chic rubbish pile of a studio that we see when the curtain rises, the first in a trio of eye-popping creations from Brill. Gilda sits slouched in a chair, and her hysteria rises nearly to the stylized rafters as she plays scattered hostess to a visit from an elder family friend, Ernest (John Cunningham), who particularly wants to show his new Matisse to Gilda’s boyfriend, Otto. He’s sleeping off neuralgia, she claims, but in fact it’s Leo who’s slumbering in the bedroom.

Giving in to a sudden flare-up in their long-simmering attraction, they’d fallen into each other’s arms, and are discussing the causes and consequences when Otto stumbles in. Leo’s explanation: “It’s been inevitable for years. It doesn’t matter who loves who the most; you can’t line up things like that mathematically. We all love each other a lot, far too much, and we’ve made a bloody mess of it.”

The bloodiness of that mess can be seen in the anguished disbelief that rises into the cherubic face of Cumming’s Otto as he ingests the news. Returning to Broadway for the first time since his Tony-winning turn in “Cabaret,” Cumming is simply terrific here; he exudes a giddy boyishness that makes Otto’s dismay at his friends’ betrayal peculiarly touching. He’s like a kid discovering he hasn’t been invited to his best friend’s birthday party — the man may be sporting bleached hair and stylish bohemian ragamuffin togs, but he’s a vision of innocence destroyed, and piteous to look upon.

If Otto’s innocence is destroyed, his love isn’t — one of the most provocative ideas in the play is the suggestion that real affection, the heart-searing kind that this trio shares, will survive anything, even betrayal (and whether we want it to or not). It will also survive success: The play’s next scene takes place a year and a half later (this production creates two acts out of the original three), when Leo and Gilda have settled in London and he’s become a hot playwright. “Something’s missing” runs the refrain that underscores their tense chatter, as Leo negotiates a weekend in the country among social lions that Gilda, moody and unsettled in her silk dressing gown, is at pains to avoid. What’s missing appears to be Otto, of course, but his arrival (via a cute — and symbolically apt — visual coup) doesn’t restore Gilda’s emotional equilibrium, even as it neatly mimics the sexual equation of the first act.

Ehle’s Gilda is the play’s brittle emotional pivot, and if the actress sometimes repeats the same effects — beaming-through-a-haze-of-tears, for example — to the point of monotony, there is nevertheless a glowing core of real emotion in her performance. She is also a luminous stage presence, as poised and lovely as an orchid amid the handsome surfaces of the production. And West, an English actor new to Broadway (who knew there were any left?), more than holds his own beside his twin Tony-winning co-stars. He’s a forceful and entirely natural actor, and magnetic in a slightly brutish, masculine way that perfectly complements the more androgynous charm of Cumming.

That charm does, however, overplay its hand a bit in the final scenes, when Leo and Otto descend upon Gilda, now splendidly married in New York, to woo her back into their emotional menage. Cumming steps onstage in a fur coat and full makeup (can no one keep the man out of Sephora?), his bee-stung red lips pouting away as if in homage to his previous turn in “Cabaret.” It’s jarring and inappropriate — like that egregiously anachronistic earring — and a rare misstep in Mantello’s otherwise exquisitely orchestrated production.

Incidental pleasures of the evening include the aforementioned costumes and sets, both of which mix appropriate period style with a sharp contemporary edge (Gilda’s Gotham apartment looks suspiciously like one of Tom Ford’s, for instance). So do the current pop versions of Coward songs that link the scenes, Bryan Ferry’s melting “I’ll See You Again” being the loveliest. And let’s not forget the brusque elan with which Jenny Sterlin nearly steals her scenes as the stolid maid Miss Hodge, or the still-exquisite Marisa Berenson adding an authentically haute note as she sashays briefly through the second act.

But the primary accomplishment of the production is the incisive treatment of Coward’s text. Some of its surfaces have acquired a layer of dust, and the playwright’s tendency toward glib articulateness runs away with a speech or two, but the play is still powerfully affecting, amusing and even radical — because it’s more human than Coward’s often confectionery works.

“Loneliness is a mug’s game,” says one of the befuddled trio early in the play. “The whole thing’s a mug’s game,” is the reply. “Design for Living” acknowledges that it may be just as painful to love honestly as it is to live without love. In the end Otto, Leo and Gilda choose the former, fully knowing the price they’ve paid and will continue to pay. One wishes the play’s essential emotional gravity were reinforced at the close — the curtain really should descend on something more ambiguous than the traditional dissolve into giddy laughter. The note of triumph isn’t inappropriate, but as Mantello’s brilliant production has illustrated, it is temporary, “a flicker of ecstasy sandwiched between yesterday and tomorrow.”

Design for Living

American Airlines Theater, New York; 740 seats; $65 top

Production

A Roundabout Theater Co. presentation of a play in two acts by Noel Coward. Directed by Joe Mantello.

Creative

Sets, Robert Brill; costumes, Bruce Pask; lighting, James Vermeulen; music and sound, Douglas J. Cuomo; production stage manager, Andrea J. Testani. Artistic director, Todd Haimes. Opened March 15, 2001. Reviewed March 11. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Cast

Gilda - Jennifer Ehle Ernest - John Cunningham Otto - Alan Cumming Leo - Dominic West Miss Hodge - Jenny Sterlin Mr. Birbeck - Saxon Palmer Grace - Marisa Berenson Henry - T. Scott Cunningham Helen - Jessica Stone
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