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Design for Living by Noel Coward
Directed by Michael Kahn
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Lansburgh Theater, 450 7th St. N.W. Washington, DC

by Grace Cavalieri


After writing about a play that I really love, I will nevertheless get emails saying: “But should we go see it?” May I begin this by saving time and saying first: “Yes You Should Go See It!”

Noel Coward, English playwright, lived to see his name light up Broadway, and “Design for Living” came at the height of his career. Let us say it is La Boheme with sequins. Three artists inextricably bound by passion and ambition, play out their loves and lives individually (as couples) and then (as couples, fractured) in a threesome. It is autobiographical, in part, as legend tells us Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne and Noel Coward began their artistic lives together in poverty and went on to rise to the top of the heap in American theater. Success, money, fame. We need to picture, then, Noel Coward as Leo, (Robert Sella,) Lunt as the character Otto (Tom Story,) and the brilliantly beautiful Gilda (Gretchen Egolf) depicting Lynn Fontanne. This triumvirate is- as you can imagine- the source of much outrage, duplicity, comradeship and unconventional attachments. Simply put, Boy loves girl, other boy loves girl, boy loves boy, girl marries briefly elsewhere, and the triumvirate of boy girl boy winds up, in difficult loving circumstances, forever more.

Three acts move us from Paris, to London and then New York with sets that are nothing less than magically designed for living in this dream world.

The script is a lesson in language. Coward invented the long pause, mercurial change, double take, and phraseology needed, as the crucible for his wit. It is in the writing, and Michael Kahn above all, knows how to emblazon it, lifting it up off the page with such high style. Without the cadence in speech Noel Coward gave us, American theater would be very different today.

Drunk scenes are the backbone of our plays, especially in the first part of the 20th century, but the choreography between Otto and Leo, as they spiral downward, is a hallmark on acting. Nuance and gesture; each one is precise, measured and complete—otherwise it would not be so hilarious.
The theme of success is taken head on, and not kindly. Fame is the conflict that fuels these relationships and ‘how it is to finally get what you want.’

“Living is a series of processes of readjustments.” Coward spent a year in recovery from a breakdown tearing him apart, and was put together the right way to come back a stronger and surer writer.

The three characters know they ‘could not make the mistake of recapturing old times,’ but in Design for Living, to our immense pleasure and satisfaction, they do. If characters have a life before the play begins and after it ends, you will find yourself wishing you were still with them. On a beautiful spring day in Washington, D.C. with all the gleaming activities beckoning, I knew there was no place but the Lansburgh I’d rather be.


Design for Living, by Nöel Coward. Directed by Michael Kahn. Lighting, Mark McCullough; sound design, Martin Desjardins. With Sherri L. Edelen, Richard Thieriot, Rebecca Kaasa and Nathan Bennett. Through June 28 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit http://www.shakespearetheatre.org.


Grace Cavalieri is a playwright and a poet. She produces/hosts "The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress" for public radio.

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