The Shakespeare Theatre's production of Noel Coward's 1932 Design for Living (in D.C. through June 28) has many virtues. The play follows a young woman and two men who find, after much denial and jealousy, that they are all in love with each other and must live as a threesome if they're to find peace and happiness.
In order to get the audience to buy this, all three actors must have at least some degree of charisma. The Shakespeare Theatre's trio -- Gretchen Egolf, Tom Story, and Robert Sella -- come through here, making the characters come across for most of the play as brilliant and confused rather than brittle and manipulative. They are childish, and remain so, but the actors convey that this childishness may be the result of their bewildered sense that this three-pronged love is something which happened to them and left them helpless against it. (There's a long but surprisingly funny drunk scene between the two men in which their ramshackle, catawampus speech and movements underline this sense of adults turned into baffled children.)
The D.C. audience seemed to go along with the paeans to honesty and unconventional love for a very long time. Although if you're less committed to total honesty than these characters you may find their impassioned revelations self-centered and cruel, they are drawing on a powerful philosophy which commentator James Poulos has dubbed Eros lo volt! -- romantic love is its own justification.
Coward in some ways stacks the deck in favor of the lovers: Gretchen comments defensively that at least they aren't out "peppering the world with illegitimate children," and in fact none of the main characters have families or a history which precedes their meeting. Their bodies' only vulnerability is in sexual desire; no aging, no pregnancy, no illness.
But in the final act, the deck suddenly reshuffles and stacks the other way. Gilda, fleeing her lovers, has plunged into marriage with her stuffy art-collector friend Ernest Friedman. His name should indicate that he is the one character who bridged the gap between the conventional, earnest bourgeois and the avant-garde freedom of the lovers.
The play's us-vs.-them shtik always had something unpleasant about it, as in the servant-problem humor in which working-class characters exist solely as comic outsiders. But when Gilda's lovers return, to find that her fear-born marriage has made her hardened and cynical, they casually swoop in to rescue her from the clutches of a husband who loves her deeply. Ernest has decisively become one of "them." And he accepts this role, ranting about the degeneracy of the trio, as they cruelly delineate his helplessness in the face of their determined eros. In the final moment of the play, Ernest stomps off like Malvolio, pompous and utterly humiliated, as the three lovers intertwine on the couch and laugh their pretty heads off.
This production plays the final laughter as definitely mocking and directed at Ernest. That isn't a necessary interpretation—although Coward himself called the trio "glib, over-articulate and amoral," he also said, "The ending of the play is equivocal. The three of them... are left together as the curtain falls, laughing.... Some saw it as the lascivious anticipation of a sort of a carnal frolic. Others with less ribald imaginations regarded it as a meaningless and slightly inept excuse to bring the curtain down. I as author, however, prefer to think that Gilda and Otto and Leo were laughing at themselves."
The laughter as cruelty interpretation weakens the play in one way: it becomes less challenging to the audience if the characters who articulate the consequences of the liberal eros lo volt! mindset are personally unsympathetic. The director may have intended to draw the audience into complicity with the lovers' selfishness -- and in fact, I was surprised at how long it took for the audience to stop laughing at Ernest, to lose their edgy sympathy for the lovers -- but the ultimate effect was simply to make the lovers' erotic demands seem further from our own.
There's something unfinished about Design for Living, some sense that we're still seeing the plot synopsis rather than the full interplay of characters. Perhaps some of the missing aspects become clearer when Coward's play is compared to its recent descendant, Edward Albee's 2002 The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?: Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy. Albee name-checks Coward in both the stage directions and dialogue, but recasts Design for Living's story as ambiguously-reactionary tragedy rather than ambivalently-liberal comedy. Albee marshals the same ideas of the unstoppable, unimaginable, irresistible power of erotic love… and puts them in the mouth of a man besotted with a nanny goat.
The Goat has much of what Design lacks. It enters more completely into its protagonist's mindset. It acknowledges all the bodily realities of dung, nursing, childbearing, aging and eventual death, which Design scoots discreetly aside. It's as if Albee is saying, "You went a few steps, Noel; I'm going all the way down."