Design For Living at the Unicorn in Stockbridge

A Revival of Noel Coward by Berkshire Theatre Group

By: - Aug 08, 2014

Emily Faulkner photo Emily Faulkner photo Emily Faulkner photographer

Design for Living
By Noel Coward
Directed by Tom Story
Scenic Design, Reid Thompson; Costume Designer,
Hunter Kaczorowski; Lighting Designer, Dan Kotlowitz;
Sound Designer, Steve Brush; Stage Manager, Jeff
Cast: Madelline Calandrillo (Helen Carver), Paul Cooper
(Ernest Friedman), Andrew Flynn (Mr. Birbeck), Chris
Geary (Otto), Jillian Hannah (Grace Torrence), Molly Heller
(Miss Hodge), Tom Pecinka (Leo), Nick Perron (Henry
Carver), Ariana Venturi (Gilda)
The Unicorn Theatre
The Larry Vaber Stage
Berkshire Theatre Group
Stockbridge, Ma.
July 30 to August 16, 2014

Design for Living is an apt title for a play about three characters who make a pact to live by their own rules, not those of society. Can they create a design for living that allows them to be creative, successful and true to their ideals? Noel Coward’s answer seems to be yes, but with some suffering, fleeing and pain intruding into their lives.

In this entertaining play, taking place in the early 1930s in Paris, London and New York Leo and Otto start off as starving artists, never bending from their artistic values, until they become wildly successful. Gilda, as a decorator and muse to both, joins them in trying to avoid societal pressures to maintain their ideals. During the twenties, a booming economy thrived with automobiles, the telephone and motion pictures. People were enjoying a break with traditions until the Great Depression hit in 1929. Conservative principles prevailed, and people were no longer free with their money or their principles. The open culture of the twenties disappeared, and many artists fled to Europe from the US.

Coward’s characters in Design for Living were among those artists. Coward wrote this play to be performed with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. They met in 1921 and became friends, often discussing their dreams of success. They made a pact that all three perform in one of Coward’s plays once they had all become successful. The idea for the play, which Coward wrote in ten days on a steamer trip back from South Africa, came the year they met (1921) from a meeting in Lunt and Fontanne’s apartment where they discussed their artistic ambitions.

Lunt and Fontanne are considered among the greatest acting teams in the history of American theatre. They met in 1917 while performing in The Wooing of Eve and married in 1922. Coward won a Special Tony Award in 1970 for ‘his multiple and immortal contributions to the theatre.’ He also received two Tony nominations in 1964: as Best Director (Musical) for High Spirits and as Best Author (Musical), along with Harry Kurnitz, for The Girl Who Came to Supper. Coward wrote 140 plays and hundreds of songs, and was knighted in England.

Leo in the play refers to the ‘brittle painted masques that are worn by people in society’ and each main character struggles with this. Leo, Otto and Gilda depend on each other to stay on track and not give in to society and its pressures. In the opening act, Ernest visits at Otto and Gilda’s apartment/studio in Paris.

Unbeknownst to him, Leo is hiding in the bedroom, having returned to Paris a successful writer. Ernest keeps asking, "What is the matter with Gilda?" He can sense an unease, as she reassures him she is madly in love with Otto. Gilda says, "I hate women and myself most." She even says to Ernest how heavenly it must be to be him, "a permanent spectator, looking at pictures all day," referring to his art business.

What we learn is that Leo is in the bedroom, and a betrayal has taken place. The dialogue is lively and quick, and the actors are all of a team. The ensemble effect is excellent, with the chemistry and rapport between Leo, Otto and Gilda, obvious and vibrant. All their feelings are enmeshed, and whether is it anger, hurt, passion, humor, or philosophy, they emote equally. They appear truly connected.

This betrayal forces a split between Otto and Gilda. When Act II begins, it is two years later in London, and Leo has received wonderful reviews for his new play. He is a success, and is living with Gilda in a plush apartment. Gilda, however, is already worrying about how success is changing him and possibly her as well. Leo suggests marriage, which has never been on Gilda’s agenda, saying it will "ease small social situations." Gilda is avoiding social situations and feels marriage is just another societal convention.

Otto returns, after living on a freighter for a long while, and tells his good friends, all is forgiven. Otto says: "I’m complete and clear, like a newly washed lamb bleating for company." Leo isn’t in, and one thing turns into another, and a second betrayal occurs.

This time Leo is enraged, and Gilda flees after an impassioned discussion, where Gilda says, "The human race is a bad letdown." After she is gone, Otto and Leo recognize their attraction for each other, and Act II ends with their kiss.

Act III opens in 1936, in the elegant New York City apartment of Ernest and Gilda, on the 30th floor, with a spectacular view. Ernest has become very successful as an art dealer, Gilda as a decorator and they are married. At first this is a shock, but as the action progresses, you see a difference in this relationship with Ernest. The two seem to have a more equal footing than Gilda had with either Leo or Otto. Her work is successful and she often is able to sell her decorating services when people come to look at the art Ernest has displayed for sale.

Throughout the play, the scenic design by Reid Thompson and the costumes by Hunter Kaczorowski, work to excellent effect to set the moods of each shift in the life of the three main characters. Gilda is dressed very elegantly, as are her guests, looking at the view and the art. As she takes them around the apartment, who should show up but Leo and Otto, as a rather flamboyant couple determined to get their friend back.

These scenes are acted in a more contemporary way in terms of the style of acting that Coward probably intended. However, the direction by Tom Story here works, again because of the chemistry of the actors. Tom Pecinka as Leo and Chris Geary as Otto do a great drunken scene that is protracted and they pull it off with style! I will refrain from discussing the ending for those of you who will see Design for Living, but will say Act III is strong, funny and underlines Coward’s great writing skills.

Ariana Venturi as Gilda is terrific, and plays the role as if she is made for it. These three actors, who performed at Berkshire Theatre Group last year, brought the play to Kate Maguire, hoping it would be staged this season. You can see why they thought it would be a success – their talent and chemistry light up the stage. Tom Story, the director, has acted in Design for Living and is familiar with all its nuances. In sum, this is an excellent production, and not one to be missed.