It takes one full act to warm up, but once it does there's still some fun to be found in Noel Coward's giddy comedy. "Design for Living," which returned to Broadway last night, at the Circle in the Square, for the first time since its initial appearance in 1932.
The revival is neither ideally cast nor directed. But then, how could it be? For this utterly scandalous, yet strangely sexless, comedy was created by the author expressly as a vehicle for himself and the Lunts. And who could ever possibly top, or come close to, that combination?
Nevertheless, as the production loosens its joints and gathers momentum, we develop an irrational fondness for Gilda (Jill Clayburgh) and Otto (Frank Langella) and Leo (Raul Julia), both of whom Gilda adores and is adored by in turn, while her two lovers adore each other, as well.
No wonder the play caused a commotion when it first appeared, at a time when the mere mention of the term "free love" raised eyebrows. And yet it circles about its implied permutations with complete discretion, depending on the author's flair for chitchat to keep it going.
It can't match the earlier (by two years) "Private Lives" in craftsmanship or wit. In fact, the late George Jean Nathan, in a particularly devastating mood, allegedly traced every Coward jest back to its alleged burlesque or vaudeville source in one of his columns. But the childish goings-on (not far removed, after all, from the tone of countless film comedies of the period) can become surprisingly pointed now and then, as when Leo, suddenly a success as a playwright, stoutly defends his pleasure in being lionized rather than pretending to abhor the roar of the crowd. His lack of cant was one of Coward's more attractive qualities.
The play covers a lot of ground: from Otto's modest painting studio in Paris to Leo's handsome London flat 18 months later, to the New York penthouse in which Gilda, an interior decorator, is living with her stuffy husband, Ernest (Richard Woods), two years later when Otto and Leo, returned from a freighter cruise to far-off places (apologizing thusly for their resplendent appearance in top hat and tails), bob up to rescue her. At long last, a menage a trois seems to have been arrived at as Ernest storms off and the loving trio collapse in each other's arms on the sofa.
I have remarked on Coward's speech as, for example, in a line such as Leo's to Gilda, going, "If, in my dotage, I become boring, you won't scruple to tell me, will you?" Without feeling it necessary to dwell on such matters as homoerotic sensibilities at work, along with what would appear to be a flagrant disregard for propriety, I suggest that Coward was nothing if not entirely proper in his treatment of these specimens, and that these midcareer plays would be merely quaint were it not for his word play.
Clayburgh, looking dashing, especially in two of the outfits costumer Ann Roth has designed for her, manages to overcome George C. Scott's occasionally stodgy (and at times suggestive, in a way Coward would never have countenanced) direction to actually sparkle as she captures the tone of the play and the period. Langella and Julia are likable, and well-matched physically, but the former comes closest to realizing the insouciance of his character, with nice bits such as the one, probably a rehearsal holdover, when he tries to appear casual by attempting to put his hand in his pocket only to realize he's in pajamas.
Richard Woods, though a bit mature for the role, portrays the stiff necked art dealer, Ernest, effectively, and there are attractive secondary performances by Helena Carroll as Gilda's dowdy English maid and by Lisa Kirk as a sleek client of Gilda's in New York.
Thomas Lynch has gotten around the difficulties presented by the Circle playing area by designing three handsome settings in a relatively small central area, thereby establishing a feeling of intimacy that is enhanced by the blackened exit and entrance passages and by Marc B. Weiss' attractive lighting.
"Design for Living" sprawls (even with cuts, it runs to two and a half hours), but one can see how its three original stars were meant to bounce it buoyantly about, and what a joy they must have been in it! Considering that it is an antiseptic sex comedy, albeit with flashes of genuine wit, these three and their director (along with between-scenes snatches of imperishable Coward tunes) come remarkably close to achieving the impossible - to make it live and breathe and throb with comic life.
With a glance of wit, a dazzle of merriment, and a finesse of style, Noel Coward's Design for Living finally returned to Broadway last night at the uptown Circle-in-the-Square. It came also under the classiest of auspices - directed by George C. Scott and starring Jill Clayburgh, Raul Julia and Frank Langella.
Oddly enough this glossy menage a trois for the theater had not been seen on Broadway since its first production with the Lunts and Coward himself in 1933. It was a foolishly long wait.
Two men. One woman. Remember how in Private Lives Amanda and Elyot couldn't live with one another, but couldn't live without one another? Well, this is an extension of that concept into another space. All three cannot live without each other, and the equation is difficult to settle.
Otto is a painter. Leo is a playwright. Gilda is...well...an interior decorator, but, mostly, Gilda. Otto loves Leo and Gilda. Leo loves Otto and Gilda. And Gilda loves Otto and Leo.
The potentials for bisexuality in this situation are never stressed, if present. (Although Coward does refer to the three famous hermaphrodites.) After all this was 1933, and even with all the play's tact, it took it until 1939 to make it to London.
Nowadays it is one of the most admired plays in the Coward canon, it has had two major revivals in London in recent years, and is popular in the American resident theater. Now New York can see what it has been missing.
It is an exquisitely constructed comedy of manners. The comings and goings are perfectly timetabled. In the first act Gilda leaves Otto for Leo. In the second act Otto wins her back, but she leaves both of them, and Otto and Leo go off together.
In the last act Otto and Leo return to take back Gilda from the dull art dealer she has somehow married on the way, and all ends disreputably happy. It is, as Coward puts it in the play, "one long convulsive sequence of ups and downs." Very elegant convulsions.
This hymn to hedonism contains some of Coward's most polished writing. There are masses of crypto-epigrams, psuedo-aphorisms, and the like. There are memorable phrases such as someone "stamping on qualms like killing beetles."
But, as ever, where Coward shows the staying power of greatness is in his ability to invest the most ordinary phrase with, in its own context, a gurgling humor. Consider: "I'm always dreadfully undecided about mustard." Does that sound funny? Wait till you hear it in the play.
There are many reasons now to suspect that the best of Coward's comedies will live as long as our theater. But what made him such a successful, and superior, boulevard writer in his own day was his manner of taking the audience into his confidence, and setting up a dramatic feeling of them against us - them being the outside world, and us being his favored characters, his cherished audience, and himself.
Seeing a Noel Coward always makes one feel sophisticated even if one isn't - that talent to amuse was also a calculation to flatter. But he was such a good playwright that art won out over contrivance.
George C. Scott's present staging - after a slow beginning - is fast and amiable. The play screams out for a proscenium arch, and the in-the-round staging offers problems to director, actors, and set designer alike, the scenic difficulties being adroitly and handsomely met, if not always mastered by Thomas Lynch. The carefully slotted, and attractive, period costumes are by Ann Roth.
Coward excels in funny bit parts - ranging in size from Helena Carroll's neatly caricatured caricature of a housekeeper, to the central role of the art dealer Ernest, played with huffy pompousness by Richard Woods.
But Design for Living is very simply designed just for three live-in stars. As Gilda, Miss Clayburgh shows a comic versatility one might not have expected. She develops her character with grace, and at the end is properly and deliriously naughty.
Scott has delivered the two men most of the laughs - although here Coward probably anticipated him. Julia and Langella are hilarious in the famous drunk scene, and when Langella tries to kick over an ashtray stand that refuses to lie down, it is one of the most hilarious bits of business to be seen in years.
All three play together like a pair of mixed doubles with one missing and a brisk determination not to notice. Delightful.
Clayburgh's femininity, the boyishness of Julia, and the sardonic, saturnine humor of Langella, bundled together by the ingenuity of Scott, help Coward to make this an evening of chromium enchantment and Art Deco enjoyment.
Noel Coward's ''Design for Living,'' an uninhibited account of a pansexual love triangle, was considered somewhat shocking stuff when it first opened in New York in 1933. To see the comedy now in its first Broadway revival is to realize that Coward's capacity to provoke, like his talent to amuse, has not at all faded with time. ''Design for Living'' isn't one of this writer's best plays, but it's an astringent, shapely piece that unabashedly celebrates money, success and emotional greed. As directed at a breakneck pace by George C. Scott at the Circle in the Square, it's a pleasant, elegant diversion about uncommonly unpleasant people.
''Design for Living'' may have been sitting on the shelf for so long because it requires stars of a special luster. Coward wrote it for himself and the Lunts - whose burgeoning careers then matched those of the play's characters - and at the time, ''Design for Living'' must have seemed like a Vanity Fair photo spread come to life. The mixed bag of stars enlisted by Mr. Scott - the ideal Frank Langella, the game Raul Julia and the earnest but miscast Jill Clayburgh - generally muster the right technique, if not the requisitely incestuous erotic chemistry. As was also true of Mr. Scott's joyous (and funnier) Circle in the Square revival of ''Present Laughter,'' this demurely heterosexual production must be one of the least androgynous in the Coward annals.
That the evening often works nonetheless says something about Mr. Scott's panache as a director of comedy and Mr. Langella's bubbly presence, but even more about the play. ''Design for Living'' tells of an indolent interior decorator, Gilda (Miss Clayburgh), who bounces back and forth between two best friends - Leo (Mr. Julia), a Coward-like playwright, and Otto (Mr. Langella), a fast-rising painter. Whatever the explicit and implicit sexual geometry of this menage a trois, it's not mined in this version - and even if it were, who in 1984 would be titillated? What really seems startling about ''Design for Living'' now is that lust, love and other emotional imperatives are almost beside the point. Coward isn't merely attacking the easy target of conventional morality; he's mocking feeling itself.
And so, even as we chuckle at the blithe wisecracks, the most inflammatory credos tumble about the Art Deco landscape. As independent-minded a woman as Gilda may be, she champions ''the survival of the fittest'' and declares, ''I don't like women at all.'' Leo announces that the idea of living ''for art alone'' is ''as much bunk as a cocktail party at the Ritz''; he loves being ''successful and sought after.'' The characters disdain the idea of marriage because it brings children - but wouldn't mind having a wedding in order to receive ''expensive presents'' and stage ''a 'do' at Claridge's.''
It's this selfish brand of behavior that is Coward's self-protective design for living - and that dictates the highly stylized design of his play. His lovers often talk in theatrical jargon: they forever note their own bad entrances and timing as if they were drama critics. All three acts of ''Design for Living'' contain stagey variations on the same classic bedroom-farce premise - an unexpected entrance by a cuckolded lover - and none of the betrayals really hurt. If living well is the characters' best revenge, so is play acting: as long as everyone retains his ''veneer'' and pretends to be happy, introspection and heartbreak can be banished. Life can remain, in Leo's words, ''a pleasure trip'' - ''a cheap excursion.''
There is, of course, a dark side to such a vain behavioral gameplan, and it's slightly shortchanged here. To knock some running time off the play - not to mention two actors off the payroll - Mr. Scott has cut the one scene (a journalistic interview) in which the hollowness of Leo's narcissistic public pose is exposed. Yet the fact that we feel so little about the people in ''Design for Living'' helps make the point. The iciness of Coward's menage lingers as long as his best lines.
Of the stars, Mr. Langella is the one to the Coward comic manner born; with his silken voice, smooth face and candied charm, he effortlessly achieves effects that the others must pant after. Mr. Julia begins at a high pitch but gradually relaxes into his role. He and Mr. Langella share a strong physical resemblance, as well suits the interchangeable Leo and Otto, and their performances finally bond in Act III: Wearing twin outfits of formal wear (complete with top hats and canes), they turn a barrage of vintage Coward nonsequiturs into an ill-mannered cricket match. Miss Clayburgh tries hard - too hard - but can't keep up with the men. Though rail-thin and fluttery, she still seems too prosaic and earthbound to pass as a naturally airborne Coward moth.
Richard Woods offers a stock rendition of the play's principal straight man, the prim art-dealer Ernest, but the other supporting roles (one belonging to Lisa Kirk) are smoothly dispatched. ''Design for Living'' also looks appropriately glamorous. Marc B. Weiss's lighting and Ann Roth's array of silk bedclothes are sleek, and Thomas Lynch's sets are inventive. Recognizing that Circle in the Square audiences must stare down at the arena stage floor, Mr. Lynch evocatively redesigns that floor as the characters ascend from a Paris studio to a London flat and New York penthouse in each act.
Mr. Scott's staging makes resourceful use of the theater's odd space and, some slapstick excesses aside, a virtue of sheer speed. That's how it should be. These people don't look before they leap; they must keep moving, no matter what. It's part of Coward's theatrical genius - and part of his play's continuing pertinence - that any pause in the unexamined lives of ''Design for Living'' would be death.