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Review: At the Unicorn, Noel Coward’s ‘Design for Living’ lacks sophistication

The biggest problem here is the relative ages of the players. They are just too young and too inexperienced.

Design For Living  

By Noel Coward.

Directed by Tom Story

“People can be so deceptive.”

Noel Coward has been dead long enough for this hot-button item to no longer be a surprise or a shock: Coward was gay. When he wrote the play, “Design for Living” in 1931 for himself and his best friends, Alfred Lund and Lynn Fontanne, he dropped the hint, in act two, that he and Alfred may well have had bisexual tendencies. The hint. In the new production of this play at the Unicorn Theatre, part of the Berkshire Theatre Group, the hint has been blown into the theme and the theme has become the biggest part of the play which, while it works, it does so at the cost of the author’s sense of humor.

The young troupe of players from Yale’s MFA in Theatre Program who have produced this show, and who play in it, are talented and, for the most part, attractive. However the one thing they are not is sophisticated. Alfred, Lynn and Noel were definitely sophisticated. What is sophisticated? My dictionary says: having acquired worldly knowledge or refinement; lacking natural simplicity or naivete. That which trods the boards at the Unicorn just now exhibits no refinement whatsoever, nor much understanding of the world at all. Without this quality in the playing of this most effete of Coward’s fine comedies there can be no play at all.

Tom Pecinka as Leo and Chris Geary as Otto in 'Design for Living.'
Tom Pecinka as Leo and Chris Geary as Otto in ‘Design for Living.’


Not that the trio of actors who have brought the play to life aren’t talented. They are. They just have over-played their hands in this show. Their director, Tom Story, seems to have given them their unsophisticated heads and let them run away with the play. Coward’s hilarious rough-and-tumble moments are there, just as they are in his best comedy, “Private Lives” written two years earlier for himself and Gertrude Lawrence, but instead of being funny, they come across as grossly unimportant.

The subject in this play is the strength of the love commitments three people have made to one another and the need to constantly save the “one” who is falling into the emotional grandeur that comes with success. The commitment is emotional, sexual and intellectual. All three bits are part of the whole fabric and when one aspect is ripped away, the cloth threatens to crumble. How they pull one another back into that attractive wall-hanging is what the play is about. However, this edition seems to be about how sad their love can make them and what that sadness does to them and to those around them.

Tom Pecinka in 'Design for Living.' Photo: Emily Faulkner
Tom Pecinka in ‘Design for Living.’ Photo: Emily Faulkner

Tom Pecinka plays the character Leo who most closely resembles the true character of Noel Coward (he played the role originally). Pecinka, as an up and coming playwright, is a handsome man who makes Leo both attractive and understandable to a point. He has a fine voice when he isn’t yelling and he yells a lot. He has good breeding, like a fine racehorse, and he can pose with poise.

Chris Geary takes on Otto, the painter, with a flourish that is outrageously gay. He might as well be a drag queen without a dress, he is that flamboyant both vocally and physically. As the live-in lover of the woman in the show, his first act entrance throws that reality into a toilet and actually flushes away our involvement with his character. He leaves himself nowhere to go, really, in Act Two and the sly inferences in the script about Otto and Leo’s former friendship is blatant rather than covert and without a surprise, thanks to Geary’s interpretation, the drunk scene loses its effectiveness.

Their muse, Gilda, an interior decorator, is played with unusual flatness by Ariana Venturi whose tendency to swallow final consonants often leaves the meaning of a line unattainable. She looks great in all of the clothing designed for her by the talented Hunter Kaczorowski. Her posture, her movement and her constantly dour facial expressions, however, belie the charm we hear about from all of the men in the play. Of all the unsophisticates, she climbs to the top of the heap.

The fourth corner of this triangle (yes, I mean that) is the art dealer Ernest who is played by a tall man with gray at the temples but whose youth gives him away utterly, Paul Cooper. Cooper has an exceptionally good voice for the stage but he just doesn’t have a grip on the character of Ernest. He is the best of the principals at getting the sense in Coward’s lines across but his visible knowledge of people and situations is lost entirely in a non-reactive manner.

The rest of the cast do the best they can. At the top of this list is Jillian Hannah as Grace Torrence and Madeline Calandrillo as Helen Carver. Both women handle their roles professionally and provide solid characters. Molly Heller as Miss Hodge is funny where she should be and solid where she must be. Nick Perron as Henry Carver is all right as is Dylan Zalikowski as Matthew. Andrew Flynn as the reporter, Mr. Birbeck, is even more outrageously gay than Chris Geary and that felt entirely wrong.

The biggest problem here is the relative ages of this players and their designers and director. They are just too young and too inexperienced to pull off the simple complexities of the roles Coward wrote and to get the timing right on most of the important moment. Timing, folks; it’s in the script. Let them try again in twenty years to be the light-hearted, tormented trio of “Design For Living.” They have the talent; they just need the experience. They could make it right once they understand what it means to have polish and flair and sophistication. They all — up and down the line — need a few more years.

Design For Living plays through August 16 at the Unicorn Theatre on Route 7 in Stockbridge, Mass., at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s site. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go to the Berkshire Edge calendar listing.


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But Not To Produce.

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The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.