Design for Living, Noel Coward’s comedy about a transatlantic ménage à trois, takes the audience on the theatrical equivalent of a grand tour. Coward's three lead characters--Gilda, Otto, and Leo--arrange and rearrange themselves into differently configured relationships as they move restlessly from Paris to London to New York. Because of this, the play presents a design challenge typical of the 1930s theatre, as it requires three fully realized sets. In the play’s current Broadway revival, at the Roundabout Theatre, scenic designer Robert Brill responded to this challenge with a series of settings that are visually striking and also reveal volumes about Gilda, Otto, and Leo, and their changing circumstances.
In Coward’s original dramatic structure, each act takes place in a different city. However, the vogue for three-act plays--and their two intermissions--has waned, so, early on in the pre-production process, director Joe Mantello chose to compress the action into two acts. The practical result was that Act I takes place in Paris and London, while Act II begins in London, then moves to New York. Without ten minutes of intermission time in which to make changes, Brill was challenged to create a design that was light on its feet.
Mantello, says Brill, also "wanted each act to expand, in size and proportion." The first act, set in Otto’s top-floor studio in Paris (Otto is, in Act I, a starving painter living with Gilda) was designed, adds Brill, "to be claustrophobic, and to have the visual chaos based on a photograph of [English painter] Francis Bacon’s studio." Thus, the apartment is a cramped space with towering walls; adding to the claustrophobia is the room's fantastic disorder. It is a spectacular mess, with every bit of the walls covered with sketches and collages. The Bacon photograph, says Brill, "was a fantastic collage of both clutter and debris that served as inspiration for his work; Joe felt that the first-act set should embody this chaos, as a way of visually underscoring their relationship." Beyond the narrow confines of the apartment is a view of the rooftops of Paris.
To create the set’s messy look, Brill says "the walls were textured in the shop and then dressed in the theatre with source material that was largely gathered by my assistant, Adam Stockhausen. He pulled together an amazing amount of material, which included a generous stack of figure drawings from his classes at Yale. This was a key component to the collage, since Otto's career is largely spent as a portrait artist. The stockpile of debris in the studio was created by the props staff, headed by Denise Grillo, and was assembled from stock un-upholstered furniture, 30 feet of art books purchased from Strand Bookstore, and materials that she acquired from local artists.
Providing a stunning contrast to the squalor of the Paris setting is the London flat where Gilda, having abandoned Otto, is, in Act II, living with Leo, a playwright who has just achieved his first big West End success. If the Paris set is cramped and vertical, the London venue is expansively horizontal, with vast green striped walls, plush furniture, and a number of overly grand details, including giant flower arrangements and a statue of a blackamoor. "We found a Cecil Beaton photo of Coco Chanel, in her Paris apartment in 1936," says Brill, "and she's standing beside a terrific statue of a blackamoor holding a candelabra." He adds that the statue was built in the Roundabout prop shop; "it’s made from layers of masking tape and paper, which are then covered, with multiple coats of resin." In contrast to the horrible mess of Act I, the second act set is stark and clean, with a green palette broken only by the vivid red flowers.
By Act III, Gilda has abandoned Otto and Leo and has run off to New York, where she has married Ernest, the triangle’s perpetual fourth wheel. Gilda is an interior decorator and Ernest an art dealer, and their apartment is a monument of Deco glamour right out of an early 30s film. It is a vast white space with a spiral staircase, an elevator entrance, and a small conversation area floating at stage left. Behind this is a set of towering yellow curtains; one of the play’s funniest moments takes place when Ernest returns from a trip, opens the curtains and discovers, to his horror, Leo and Otto happily sunning themselves on the terrace. "We exaggerated the proportions of the space to help isolate the island of furniture," adds Brill. "The furnishings are minimal and inspired by both period and mid-century design."
The curtains, he notes, "were to be constructed from a fabric available from Rose Brand. We were very specific about the color, so amidst all the changes after the bid, it was one of the few things that we were committed to. Ironically, we found out that it was not available from the mill and in the end had to source it in the garment district." He adds, "All three sets are incredibly difficult to light as they’re relatively enclosed interiors which are further challenged by the way the scenery is stored both offstage and in the air--the scenery is spot-lined on diagonal line-sets. Still, Jim [Vermeulen, the lighting designer] somehow managed to achieve three very distinct looks."
In fact, scenic transitions were a big challenge, especially given the fact that they happened in the middle of each act. All scenic transitions are covered by irising traveler curtains and borders that close down as a transition begins and open up as it completes. "The first act set," says Brill, "other than the Paris rooftop, travels as a unit to an upstage left position. The iris travelers are synchronized to frame the act one unit as it travels to its offstage position, allowing the crew to begin the shift stage right undercover. The second and third act sets are flown, except for the spiral staircase, which is permanently in place." (Scenery was built and automated by Hudson Scenic Studios).
In addition to Stockhausen and Grillo, a number of other personnel were involved, including John Conners, Johua Spitzig, and Kris Stone, who served as additional assistants to Brill, technical supervisor Steve Beers, master technicians Glenn Merwede and William K. Rowland, assistant props Abigail Kiney and Ellen Vanwees, prop artisan Roger Gresham, prop shopper Constance Sherman, and propman Declan McNeill. The production also features costumes by Bruce Pask and sound by Douglas J. Cuomo.
Overall, Brill’s sumptuous, witty designs provide an excellent backdrop for Coward's erotic geometry; they also reflect Otto, Leo, and Gilda’s restless pursuit of the good life. This is a very well designed Design for Living.
The production ran at the Roundabout’s Broadway venue through May 13.
Top two photos: ©2001, Joan Marcus.
Set shots: courtesy of Robert Brill.