"I think on the whole I am a better writer than I am given credit for being," No묠Coward once wrote in his diary. Though he meant this "private thought" for eventual publication, there's still a lot of truth in it. Having created the image of the perfect casual wit, dashing off plays with one hand while holding a cigarette or martini glass in the other, Coward found that his writing as a whole was treated with critical contempt, or at best mistrust.
But if critics were problematic, Coward has suffered most grievously at the hands of directors and actors, who usually treat his plays as big ol' grab bags of epigrammatic wit. What's surprising about even the lightest of his comedies is how much he wants to say, whether it's the critique of social play-acting in Hay Fever, or the defiant philosophy of eternal frivolity in Private Lives, or more particularly the soul searching that's part and parcel of the relationships in his darkest comedy, Design for Living.
Design for Living
Seattle Repertory Theater
ends April 18
The central conflict of this play is that of any number of romantic comedies: A couple who are entirely wrong for each other are nonetheless drawn together. The twist ࠬa No묠is that instead of a couple, it's a trio, the painter Otto (played by Jared Reed), the writer Leo (Jeff Woodman), and Gilda (Francesca Faridany), whose ambition is to be an interior decorator. Beginning in Otto's Parisian garret, we're introduced both to the glistening Gilda and the trio's fourth (and entirely unnecessary) wheel, Ernest (Mark Chamberlin, who's oddly lecherous for a character that's supposed to be irredeemably conventional). Ernest is on hand to discover that while it's Otto's studio, it's Leo who's in the bedroom. He's returned to town a success and jumped immediately into bed with his best friend's girlfriend. This "betrayal" leads to a series of partner switching (Gilda/Leo, Gilda/Otto, and yes, Leo/Otto) as all three try to decide where their hearts should lie.
Woodman, Faridany, and Reed are an attractive trio of actors with the sort of personal charisma that the parts require (Coward described them as "glib, overarticulate, and amoral creatures"). Director Stephen Wadsworth makes the Leo/Otto coupling explicit with some onstage Frenching, but all three are curiously passionless in their advances; this is a play much less about sex than about love and affection. Wadsworth's concern with real emotion is a sign that he's insistent on treating Coward's play seriously, despite how relentlessly superficial its three main characters present themselves.
This pays off in an admirably clear production that seems almost at pains to elucidate Coward's philosophy of relationships, which could be summed up as "whatever works with whoever it works with." As Otto says to Gilda's housemaid (Sarah Brook), "You are making a mistake in daring to disapprove of something that has nothing to do with you whatever."
The seriousness also heightens the play's comedy, which like most Coward is less epigrammatic than character- and situation-driven, though Wadsworth sensibly indulges in some clever physical burlesque to highlight the plot's occasionally farcical nature.
At times, however, Wadsworth's overly stylized directing calls far too much attention to itself. He seems so sure of what Coward truly means to say that he occasionally ignores what's on the page, particularly in the play's third act, where he creates a number of stage pictures with his actors reminiscent of Obsession perfume ads. Early in the act, Leo and Otto (now a couple) enter and scare off some guests to whom Gilda is trying to sell her interior design services. But instead of an atmosphere of confrontational nonsense that sends the straitlaced strangers running for the door, Wadsworth has the trio assume a series of static positions where they stare out at the audience like characters in a Strindberg piece. Even more bizarre, the visitors (Hans Altweis and Shelley Reynolds, largely wasted in their roles) react as zombies, watching, then getting up and leaving for no particular reason whatsoever. It's the sort of triumph of style over substance that is a complete disservice to its material. While these sorts of moments may serve Wadsworth well in his opera directing, it's doubtful that Coward would have much time for such artistic preciousness. As Gilda made yet another slooow-motion crossing of the stage, I couldn't help wondering if he'd borrowed the blocking from an earlier production of Hedda Gabler. Moments like this add about a half-hour too much to a play that, like almost all comedies, should resolutely clip along.
Perhaps a deeper fault is with Coward; after all, he sets us up a scenario of love that he himself admits is rare to the point of absurdity (how many m鮡ges ࠴rois in real life show such determined longevity?), then uses it as a platform to discuss his philosophy of life. The result may be significantly less than it seems. But it remains a pleasure that beneath his iconic white tie and tails there beats a sincere, and even a sentimental, heart.