Apple Tree Theatre Company

I like to put my nose right up to great paintings and study how the artists achieved their effects: a crude dab of white paint, for example, endows a human eye with intelligence; some roughly layered colors make an Impressionist landscape shimmer. There’s something incongruous about the fact that these simple tricks produce such complex, beguiling sensations.

I often have a similar experience when I go to the Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park. Part of the reason, I suspect, is the theater’s layout—it’s so compact that no matter where you sit, your nose is right up to the canvas, so you can observe the actors’ technique in detail. But I’ve seen plenty of mediocre productions up close. What sets Apple Tree apart is the invention behind all that technique. Something strange keeps happening in that tiny performing space (where the Steppenwolf folks got started, by the way). Actors don’t just do their best, they outdo themselves. They seem to release ideas and energy from each other until their work starts to crackle. What they create is far more than the product of mere technique, and seeing it up close only intensifies the mystery of the process.

Apple Tree’s production of Design for Living, by Noël Coward, displays this glorious synergy. The play itself is not inherently brilliant. Coward dashed it off in 1932 as a star vehicle for himself and his close friends, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. It’s about a brazen, independent woman named Gilda and her affection for three men—a painter, a writer, and a prissy art dealer. The plot is a variation on the old “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” story, and the structure is rigidly symmetrical.

But Eric Simonson brings the play to life through his zippy direction, which enhances the wit of the characters and adds zest to their call for personal independence.

It’s tempting to see foreshadowings of feminism in Design for Living. Gilda, after all, is a strong woman with an income of her own, who considers marriage a form of romanticide. She will not be restrained in any way, and ultimately walks out on two men she loves, leaving identical “Dear John” letters behind.

But Design for Living is ahead of its time in another way. This classy comedy—so suave, so witty, so frightfully articulate—is actually a thinly disguised defense of the homosexual lifestyle. Although the characters are clearly heterosexual, they display a hearty contempt for the behavior associated with conventional sexuality. They have no apparent family commitments, but feel a powerful kinship with each other. They have no children, and Gilda states emphatically that she doesn’t want any. They don’t even have conventional jobs: Gilda is an interior decorator, Otto is a painter, and Leo—the role Coward wrote for himself—is a successful playwright. Ernest, the art dealer, is the only character intent on making money, and he turns out to be the spokesman for conventional notions of decency. Gilda, Leo, and Otto shock him in the way they disregard those notions and gravitate toward a life devoted to sexual abundance and pleasure.

As usual, Coward attacks prevailing moral standards with a devastating weapon—frivolity. The characters are brilliantly flippant and droll. Their banter is filled with deeply sarcastic witticisms. “The Japanese don’t mind destruction a bit,” says Otto while discussing earthquakes. “They like it; it’s part of their upbringing. They’re delighted with death. Look at the way they kill themselves on the most whimsical of pretexts.”

Such flippancy undercuts any counterattack by the forces of decency and restraint. In Coward’s Private Lives, Elyot, while denouncing those “moralists who try to make life unbearable,” actually advocates this strategy: “Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light,” he says.

This flippancy—or gay-ity, if you will—is a means of disarming the smug moralists who would otherwise relegate homosexuals once again to the closet. While Gilda’s behavior in Design for Living was rather notorious in 1933, the subtext was downright revolutionary, and it’s what gives the play its spirit: for Coward, the demands of bourgeois decency were no competition for the demands of the heart.

The Apple Tree Theatre has done a superb job of enhancing the glamour, the wit, and the sentiment of this play. The period costumes, by Brigid Brown, are not only handsome but appropriate for each character: Otto adopts a look of nonchalant elegance; Leo is stylish; Gilda is daring but tasteful; Ernest looks buttoned-up and self-consciously appropriate. Chuck Drury’s compact set creates three distinct locales—a dingy artist’s garret, a fashionable London flat, and an opulent New York penthouse. Pianist Nancy Macomber and violinist Kevin McMahon provide lovely renditions of Coward classics.

And the performances are clever, even intelligent. Hollis Resnik, a familiar figure in musical theater throughout the area, demonstrates her delightful abilities as a comedienne. She recognizes Gilda’s dual aspects—the tough, defiant woman of the world, and the petulant, insecure little girl who hides behind that facade—which adds depth and humor to her character.

The two main men in her life are portrayed by actors who are remarkably attuned to each other onstage. Patrick Clear, as Leo, is brisk and vibrant but always human, never letting his character slip into effete snobbery. And Tim Monsion, whose ability seems to grow with each role he takes on, makes Otto observant, perceptive, sensitive, but totally self-assured—the picture of a talented painter. Together, these two actors develop a rapport that grows deeper as the play progresses. They also do the best drunk scene I have ever seen. (As Clear becomes inebriated, one of his eyes gets sleepy and sluggish—one of those simple details that add so much life to a portrayal.)

It’s always difficult to assess the director’s contribution to a show, but I’m beginning to suspect that Simonson casts some sort of spell over any play he stages. This is the guy who transformed The Normal Heart from a collection of New York Times clippings into a beautiful, heartbreaking love story. He also has staged impressive productions of Beckett and Pinter. The techniques that Simonson used to bring Design for Living to life remain hidden, at least from me, but I plan on sitting as close as possible to his next canvas.