This Moral Coil

To act such a play is to drive an obstacle course: You just plow straight ahead and try not to crash into any barriers. Glenn Fitzgerald, in the lead, has had the rotten luck to see Mark Ruffalo, for whom the role was originally intended, walk off with the daily reviews. Fitzgerald, who uses a cutting-edge voice and a dimwit manner that suggest a less serious and more summer-stocky play, is chiefly irritating, but I doubt that Ruffalo's tough-waif act could have drawn anything deeper from this nebulous character. Even Fitzgerald's voice is trumped, in the ear-grating department, by Heather Burns, who apparently equates nervous vulnerability with yowling. The other duo in this four-handed game wins all the points: Dion Graham, sturdy, fretful, and driven, makes the supervisor as close as this play comes to a real person, while Tate Donovan's mix of tough malevolence, bonhomie, and bluster, though scaled down from the genuine scariness of crooked cops, offers a thoroughly accurate stage replica. (Between this and Amy's View, Donovan could become New York's stage update of Erich von Stroheim—the dangerous s.o.b. you can't help liking.) Mark Brokaw, directing, has creditably declined to gloss over any of the lapses in the script's Swiss-cheese logic. At one point the hero nearly gets sacked for sleeping on the job; I'm tempted to suggest that certain reviewers who praised the play should be eighty-sixed for nodding off mentally while watching. Don't ask for names: Unlike the hero, I don't rat on my colleagues.


But I don't mind spilling the beans about Noël Coward, who's currently located where nothing I say will harm him: Design for Living is neither a very good nor a very funny play. Productions of it not performed by the author and the Lunts tend to be failures. Trust me, I've endured enough of them to know. Glum and verbose, with a startling tendency to sermonize, the script clearly needs, not a superficial approach (superficial sermonizing is the most obnoxious), but three actors who genuinely adore being around each other and the audience. Unless they can convince the audience they do, their defense of their lifestyle sounds like mere defensiveness, and their attacks on others seem merely mean-spirited. Since Ernest, the wealthy older man who temporarily removes Gilda from this bisosceles triangle, is Jewish, the meanness has a nasty brackish edge. But if the three really adore each other, and can make the house share their adoration, all is forgiven; it's respectability that looks silly and stuffy, and all you can think of is what fun it would be to be Gilda, Otto, and Leo.

West, Ehle, and Cumming in Design for Living: trilateral omission
photo: Joan Marcus
West, Ehle, and Cumming in Design for Living: trilateral omission

Details

Lobby Hero
By Kenneth Lonergan
Playwrights Horizons
16 West 42nd Street
212-279-4200

Design for Living
By Noël Coward
The former Selwyn Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
212-279-1300

Don't expect to think any such thing during Joe Mantello's Roundabout revival. You can follow the map of the play; you can admire Jennifer Ehle's intensity and beauty, while trying to guess what role she thinks she's playing (Andromache? Cordelia? Amanda?) instead of Gilda. You can admire Dominic West's towering good looks and ease onstage; you can, if you insist (I wouldn't), enjoy Alan Cumming's relentlessly puckish mugging. You can ponder what Bruce Pask's intermittently outré costumes have to do with Robert Brill's grandly grim sets, or the somber haze cast across them by James Vermeulen's lights. You can wince, between scenes, at the anachronistic music—neo-techno covers of Coward songs. But any chance to enjoy Design for Living—an iffy prospect to begin with—has been systematically removed. What's left is the puzzle: How did Noël, Alfred, and Lynn make it all seem so delightful?

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