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Noel Coward's 'Design for Living' skews younger in BTF production

Ariana Venturi and Tom Pecinka in a scene from Noel Coward's 'Design for Living'
Ariana Venturi and Tom Pecinka in a scene from Noel Coward's 'Design for Living'
Emily Faulkner, Berkshire Theatre Group

'Design for Living' at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre

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A number of audience members attending the Berkshire Theatre Group’s revival of Noel Coward’s “Design for Living,” which plays at their Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge through August 16, were overhead saying that they were so unfamiliar with this play that they didn’t know Coward could write such serious drama.

Chris Geary, Ariana Venturi and Tom Pecinka in a scene from "Design for Living'
Emily Faulkner

Admittedly, “Design for Living” is no “Private Lives,” with the latter’s rapier wit and deliciously awkward situations. But I have never seen it played so starkly dramatic as it is in director Tom Story’s production. There’s the barest hint of light and frothiness in Story’s take on Coward’s tale of three up and coming artistic friends who manage to fall in and out of love with each other as their careers start to take off in the Europe of the early 1930’s. While Coward meant to demonstrate that artists are capable of living in unconventional relationships that transcend societal norms about love and marriage, this production emphasizes the toll that betrayal can take on the hurt parties with an unsettling undercurrent about the roots and sources of inspiration.

At the play’s center are three appealing young English folk: Otto, an aspiring artist, living with his girlfriend and muse, as young and glamorous as her name Gilda implies, and their mutual friend Leo, an up and coming author. A slightly older visitor, their friend the art dealer Ernest, arrives one morning at Otto’s studio to discover that while Otto’s been away, Gilda and Leo have fallen into each other’s arms and commenced an affair. When Otto unexpectedly returns, confrontations result, excuses are offered and relationships are ultimately questioned.

Employing a clever ironically parallel structure similar to the one he used in “Private Lives,” Coward turns the tables in the second act, set 18 months later in London, which finds the now-published Leo together with Gilda as a series of circumstances throws her and Otto back together. While the two men bicker, Gilda runs off with the stuffy Ernest, who has been silently in love with her from the sidelines. The third act, set two years later in 1936, finds Gilda leading a frenetic social life not only as Ernest’s wife but as a successful interior decorator, when the tag team of Leo and Otto show up to reclaim their friend and muse.

While most productions of “Design for Living” tend to emphasize the comedic banter and artistic aloofness of the main characters, Story instead lets us viscerally feel what’s at stake. In particular, he stresses each man’s palpable sense of pain upon discovering their precious Gilda in the clinches of the other man. Their outbursts carry an uncomfortable edge, even when their reactions are outsized and somewhat humorous. It’s hard to believe that these betrayals can ever be forgiven, making it a bit harder to understand when they ultimately are.

This is partly due to the fact that everything is presented as revolving around Gilda. Ariana Venturi gives us an attractive Gilda, who actually does grow more glamorous and poised as the evening progresses. She commands our attention, not merely because she is the only woman on stage during the first act, but because she allows us to see how three men could be enchanted by her, due to her character’s intelligence, natural beauty, and genuine concern for all three men. What we don’t get to see is the extent of the friendship between Otto and Leo that will be jeopardized by all the bed-hopping.

Coward disdained some of the revisionist productions of “Design for Living” in the latter years of his life, that blatantly played up a questionable pre-existing erotic charge between Otto and Leo. Although this production will briefly nod in that direction eventually, that moment is made even more difficult to accept because we have not really seen any type of genuine affection between the men earlier, even though they are admittedly at odds from essentially their first scenes together.

It is easier to feel the chasm in their relationship, particularly as Christopher Geary as the initially slighted Otto pours out his anger at both Gilda and Leo. Unfortunately, Geary has been directed to yell if not scream out his rage in ridiculously loud torrents of speech that are probably waking the audience down at the Mainstage catching that evening’s performance of ‘Cedars.” He calms down as the evening progresses and handles some of Coward’s witty bon mots that populate the final act with a marvelous sense of timing that communicates his inner delight.

Tom Pecinka cuts a fine figure as Leo, who comes across initially as a bit of a fool, but as he matures across the timeline of the play, incorporates a growing level of confidence. He wears costume designer Hunter Kaczorowski’s formal attire particularly well, giving us a glimpse of the serious writer he wants to be.

Paul Cooper plays Ernest a bit younger and as more of a contemporary of our three main characters, which makes more evident his reliance on a family fortune, while his three friends scrimp and scrape as they begin their professional journeys out into the world. His Ernest does come off as a handsome cipher for most of the early-going, but he does manage to rise to a state of high dudgeon and sincere disbelief in the final scenes of the play.

A group of Berkshire Theatre Group interns join theater regular Madeline Calandrillo as various servants and high society guests. Their youth does not generally get in the way of their characters, though Molly Heller’s housemaid, Miss Hodge, has a tendency to betray her character’s age, particularly when she is given some uncharacteristic vamping and dancing to do during scene changes. Similarly, Jillian Hannah’s looks, voice and demeanor belie all her efforts as the wealthy opera donor Grace Torrance.

Kaczorowski has created a rather scintillating array of costumes that significantly assist in anchoring the play in the 1930’s as does Steve Brush’s sound design which incorporates some 30’s-sounding music throughout the proceedings. Reid Thompson’s set design allows a basic semi-circular structure to morph into a set of increasingly attractive flats and apartments as the various characters move up in the world, culminating in a stunningly sumptuous art-deco inspired New York apartment. Thompson’s only misstep is in the creation of Otto’s studio in the first act. It just isn’t messy enough for a young artist’s studio, particularly for an artist who turns out to be as volatile as Otto is. There’s no remnants of paint on the floor or wall, no balled up pages of rejected sketch ideas. Even those drafts and etchings he has attached to the deep blue walls seem too orderly for a young artist trying to find his metier.

Every year, the Berkshire Theatre Group schedules one play using Yale students and the BTF interns, which of course causes this production to have the look and feel of a college production, rather than a professional one. Because the three leads are all current Yale School of Drama students, the characters of Gilda, Otto and Leo skew unusually very young. This actually turns out to serve the play quite well. Their social and sexual experimentation comes across more as part of their maturing process rather than due to something in their artistic blood that encourages them to challenge societal expectations. Because of their youth, however, the actors do miss some of the nuances in their characterizations, which somehow limits the joy and exuberance of the final scene. In fact, as suggested by Venturi specifically, there’s almost a studied ruefulness in their mutual decisions to face the future based on their hard-won design for living.

For tickets and information, call the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Box Office at 413.997.4444 or visit their website at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.