December 1999 marked the centennial of Noel Coward's birth, a big event in 20th-century theatre history that was greeted, disappointingly, by very few productions of his plays. (On Broadway, there was a revival of his late, rarely seen comedy Waiting in the Wings.) One notable exception to this lamentable trend was the Delaware Theatre Company production of Coward's 1933 comedy Design for Living.
Originally conceived as a vehicle for Coward and the Lunts, Design for Living is as sophisticated as they come. The play's three acts examine different aspects of a romantic triangle involving Otto, a painter; Leo, a playwright, and Gilda, the interior designer who bounces back and forth between them. The play's triangular structure makes heavy demands on its design team; it calls for three fully dressed interior settings, plus three different wardrobes for the characters as they face vastly different circumstances. Set and costume designer Marie Anne Chiment's conversations with director Fontaine Syer led her to conclude that the production "should be set in the 1930s, but have a certain open-mindedness to today--a timeless quality." (Perusing old copies of Vogue for costume research, she came upon more than one couture outfit that looked distinctly 90s.) Furthermore, the tight budget demanded that she design a single set that, with alterations, could serve for all three acts. Working with these concepts and realities, she created a design as sleek and timeless as a little black dress.
In her scenic design, Chiment says, she decided "Each act represented a different kind of 'performance.'" Act I is set in Otto's Paris studio. "The storyline of this act is about a poor, struggling artist in Paris and his lady-love," says the designer. "It's right out of La Boheme." Thus the room was bare, with a large rear window, and furnished with cast-offs and mismatched furniture. "It's an old converted warehouse-turned-loft, similar to the lofts that artists use today," she says, adding that she played tricks with the room's scale. "The room is at odds with itself architecturally. There is no symmetry to it. Its scale dwarfs the people and the furniture, adding to the inhabitants'--and the audience's--discomfort."
Act II takes place in Leo's town house; Leo is now a successful playwright and he lives in bourgeois comfort. Chiment, who conceived the set in terms of a British comedy of manners, designed it to be the virtual opposite of Otto's studio, a rigidly, almost suffocatingly symmetrical space. To create a completely different look, the rear window wall from Act I was removed and replaced by a new unit with a fireplace and French doors. "Everything matches in this room," she notes.
In Act III, Gilda has abandoned both Otto and Leo and is now ensconced in a Manhattan penthouse, having married Ernest, a rather dull art dealer. "This is the first space designed by Gilda," says Chiment, who incorporated many curved, feminine forms into the space. The design, which was conceived as the Hollywood version of a Manhattan penthouse, was inspired by the work of French architect Pierre Chareau, whose Maison de Verre, with its modernist use of glass and metal, is a key artifact of the Deco style. Other scenic elements included a curved flying staircase, a curved window unit, and a glass brick wall (replacing the fireplace and French doors from Act II). "The torcheres, tables, and glass bricks all incorporate circular motifs," she says. "The textures are hard, sleek, glass and chrome. Gilda has created a beautiful glass coffin for herself." Fortunately, Otto and Leo show up to spring her, and soon the trio is reunited, destined to live happily, if neurotically, ever after.
Since each act represents a different way of life for Gilda, her wardrobe underwent considerable changes. In Act I, living the bohemian life, she appeared in hand-painted silk panne velvet lounging pajamas. The pants were painted gray-green, but the top was multicolored, like an artist's palette. Her hair was cut in a Louise Brooks-style bob and she went barefoot. By Act II, she was dressed in hand-painted silk charmeuse lounging pajamas, but here, "it was a much more organized outfit," says Chiment, "in very pale teal green and peach. Everything matched--perhaps too much." By Act III, Gilda made a drop-dead entrance in a very heavyweight charmeuse evening gown, colored in a smoky taupe. The bias-cut gown was pure 30s, with diamond-shaped inserts over the hips, a plunging decolletage center front, and a back that was bare to the waist. Syer directed the actress playing Gilda to enter and, facing away from the audience, shed her wrap--a black satin trench coat--revealing her nude back.
Chiment's design kept the Delaware technical staff hopping. "We vacuformed 1,000 individually molded glass bricks," she says, adding that the props crew painted a gorgeous Deco carpet for the third-act setting, and built and reupholstered furniture as necessary. Among those she singles out are technical director Mark Wethington, prop manager Amy Mussman, and resident costume designer/costume shop manager Marla Jurglanis. However, she adds, "All the departments pulled together and helped each other out. Everyone there was proud of the final result." And, one dares to say, quite a nice birthday present for Sir Noel himself.
The lighting for Design for Living was designed by Rebecca G. Frederick, with sound by Josh Navarro. The production ran December 1-19 at Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington.