A threesome never really seemed like a British affair to me. I suppose after hearing about the love triangles of Shakespeare, both in real life and suggested in plays, I assumed they all would end in sadness, regret and very often violent death. But Noël Coward has another answer.
“Design for Living” is a three-act play written by Coward in his style of very witty and sharp dialogue and quick comedy… but it doesn’t start off that way. Instead of ending with the tragedy, Coward proposes to begin with it. The play, put on by the University of Alabama Department of Theatre and Dance at the Allen Bales Theatre in the Rowand-Johnson Building and directed by Jimmy Kontos, runs for two more showings: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $10.
The play starts with Gilda (Bridget Winder) at home in Paris, having a discussion with her art dealer friend Ernest (Jeff Horger). During their conversation, she tells Ernest that her partner Otto (Thaddeus Fitzpatrick) is asleep and not to be disturbed. He tells her that a former good friend of hers, and former lover of Otto, Leo (Adam Vanek) has come to Paris, riding on the coattails of success. Gilda’s tale unravels slightly when Otto walks in through the door. Ernest, adding things up, leaves Otto to discuss things with Gilda. When she convinces him to go and visit Leo at the Ritz, Leo exits from her bedroom and they discuss how they should break news of this affair to him, as they both love him. When he returns and the truth of the matter is laid out, Otto storms out in anger, denouncing both.
A year later, in London, a familiar scene plays out, but with different players. This time, Leo and Gilda are living together. Leo is quite successful writing plays, but the success is wearing on both of them somewhat. When Leo ends up going away for a weekend and Otto arrives unexpectedly, history decides to repeat itself, though with a slightly more amicable ending for Otto and Leo. Gilda, however, abandons them both, only to be found two years later married to Ernest and living in New York.
First, I’ll go ahead and warn that the play is a bit long. This is the first play that I can recall, particularly at UA, that has two intermissions. It runs, with the intermissions, at about 2 and a half hours. And it is perhaps a bit slow to warm up into the comedy, particularly. The first act is mostly quite dramatic, and a bit heartbreaking and sad if you let it be. But it sets up the second act well. The second act also sees the inclusion of a maid, Miss Hodge (Brittany Steelhammer), who quite easily steals most of the comedy for herself.
By the third act, however, the play has firmly settled into its comic elements. Not to say comedy was entirely absent before, it simply comes out full-force in the ending. And the casting certainly helps. Fitzpatrick is one of the most entertaining people I have ever seen on stage, and I mean that completely in earnest and without hyperbole. And the ease with which each of the three primary actors work together and against one another leads to some very good drama and some even better comedy, particularly when Fitzpatrick and Vanek are onstage by themselves.
It is, I think, a solid play with excellent performances all around and humorous details that are just as entertaining as the punchlines. (Benjamin Mitchell’s stint as the servant Matthew, for example, has a particularly wonderful moment when serving coffee.) And the reactions from Gilda’s company in the third act, Henry Carver (Jay Jurden), Helen Carver (Kelly Barberito) and Grace Torrence (Tara Lynn Steele) were fantastic and clearly not skimped over, which too many productions tend to do. The set by Ian Mangum was simple yet quite effective, and the costumes, designed by Randy Hozian, very clearly helped identify the successes and comforts of the characters.
If you have the time, and enjoy being worked from giggle to guffaw, go see the show. It’s quite worth it.