Touchstone Theatre

at the Halsted Theatre Centre

Both as an artist and critic, I tend to be drawn to the avant-garde–I can be one of those reverse snobs who believes that the higher the budget, the less important the production. And nothing could be farther from that approach than Noel Coward. With his upper-crust sensibility, his endless witticisms, his high-society nonchalance, and his British reserve, he’s so de rigueur, so of-the-period, so very very that it’s hard to feel that his writing matters.

So ordinarily I wouldn’t accept an assignment to review a Coward play (though I do find him hysterically funny). But Design for Living, his scandalous 1933 hit about a bohemian trio moving through the art worlds of Paris, London, and New York, is something of an exception. His running motifs–the playful disregard for accepted sexual mores, the sexual independence of the “modern woman,” the titillating suggestion of a bisexual menage a trois, and the thinly veiled suggestion of homosexuality–are all issues that today send the NEA into a cold sweat. A drop-dead production of Design for Living could really ruffle some undies at the Halsted Theatre Centre. And those undies could use ruffling.

Unfortunately, Touchstone’s version keeps its hands well away from anyone’s underwear. Director Ina Marlowe’s production is so staid, so polite, so downright reasonable that it can only gaze from afar at the giddy heights of Coward’s play.

To say that the British are reserved is certainly a cliche, but in a play like Design for Living such reserve is imperative, for without it the play teeters dangerously on the brink of melodrama. Coward’s characters are all so refined, and so exquisitely conscious of their refinement, that their lives seem an elaborate cocktail reception full of carefully planted barbs and “measured skirmishing,” as one character describes it. All you need is an extra-dry martini and an ironic smile and you’re armed.

But Touchstone’s production is emotionally overwrought. The characters wear their emotions on their sleeves, telegraphing to one another and the audience how they “really feel.” This is particularly true of Gilda (Adrianne Cury), who plays lines like “Something’s missing, and I don’t know what it is” and “I’m not needed anymore” for all their maudlin sentimentality. Coward’s characters retain some tragic stature precisely because, trapped behind their cultured veneers, they are unable to achieve anything resembling emotional honesty. The actors in Touchstone’s production generally seem unaware of the importance of that veneer. They are fidgety and high-strung, altogether too American. Those who do attempt a certain British reserve–notably Larry Hart as Ernest and Kendall Marlowe as Otto–don’t provide their characters with much emotional life to cover up. As a result, they generally appear merely bored.

Even more problematic, this cast doesn’t seem to have paid attention to the clues provided in the play itself. Gilda is described as “aloof” in her seductiveness, yet Cury’s Gilda overflows with needless perkiness, literally gasping through half her lines. When Otto discovers that Gilda and Leo (Nick Polus) are having an affair behind his back, he storms about the room, expressing the enormous hurt he’s suffered. So when Leo comments that Otto is being perfectly “calm” in his response to the affair, the scene just doesn’t make any sense.

At least this production doesn’t take itself too seriously–it doesn’t purport to be anything more than an evening’s entertainment. As Otto says, “We’re not doing any harm to anyone else. . . . The only people we could possibly mess up are ourselves and that’s our lookout.” But by missing Coward’s style Touchstone not only prevents the play’s sexual underpinnings from having any effect, it misses the humor as well. And a nearly three-hour production of Design for Living without scandal or humor can be a bit of a challenge to sit through.