A pair of recent off Broadway openings provided interesting takes on what used to be called bohemian life. Although Richard Nelson’s Madame Melville is set in Paris in the mid-1960s and Keith Bunin’s The Credaux Canvas is set right now in New York’s East Village, each of them had a meticulous set design that reveals much about the world of each play. Each setting was distinct, yet designers Thomas Lynch and Derek McLane faced similar issues on the way to opening night.

Madame Melville, which transferred to Off Broadway’s Promenade Theatre after a West End run, was best-known as Macaulay Culkin’s theatre debut. He played Carl, an American teenager living in Paris in 1966 who falls into an affair with one of his teachers, played by Joely Richardson. The play tracks their brief relationship, from its casual beginning to its wrenching conclusion a couple of days later. The Credaux Canvas focuses on Jamie, Winston, and Amelia, a trio of friends, struggling artists all, who decide raise some cash by conning a wealthy widow into buying a forged painting attributed to a little-known 19th-century French artist (The widow is convinced, presciently, as it turns out, that the artist, Credaux, is ripe for a retrospective). The plan goes horribly awry, leading to a suicide, an abortion, and two broken romances. The Credaux canvas may be a fake, but it tells Jamie and his friends far more about themselves than they can stand to know.

Madame Melville is set in the title character’s apartment, a small but chic little place filled with evidence of its owner’s artistic and intellectual interests.The Credaux Canvas is set in the Jamie and Winston’s apartment, the kind of drab, amenity-free walkup that occupied by so many young New Yorkers. In each set, three major considerations shaped the design.

1.Placement and ground plan. Lynch originally designed Madame Melville for Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, where it was set to open last fall. Instead, it debuted a few months later at London’s Vaudeville Theatre—a very different space from the Belasco. “The Vaudeville was wonderful,” he says, “It had a 30’ wide proscenium and a deeper stage than the Belasco.” Finally, it was booked into the Promenade, a much smaller house than either the Belasco or the Vaudeville, with a thrust stage. (Interestingly, at the same, Lynch had similar challenges with another Richard Nelson play, Goodnight Children, Everywhere, which transferred from the tiny Playwrights Horizons theatre Off Broadway to San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre.) What Lynch created for Madame Melville was a space showing the living room of the apartment, with a partially visible bedroom and kitchen. Hanging above, at various angles, several window units. Speaking of the bedroom and kitchen, Lynch says, “Richard always wants those offstage spaces to have a feeling of reality. We wanted the luxury of implying a fuller, deeper ground plan within the strict, box-set design strictures of a boulevard comedy.” As for the window units, which add a complex geometry to the set, he says, “Madame Melville is a memory play, and we tried to achieve a fractured look to suggest that.”

On the other hand, the setting for The Credaux Canvas, a large kitchen-living room-painter’s studio, was fitted into the narrow, deep Playwrights Horizons space on an angle. This was partly done, says McLane, because the theatre has no wing space at stage right, where set’s front door is located, and it was necessary to make room for their entrances. But also, he says, “It was just an interesting way of doing it, to take a realistic 90-degree ground plan and turn it. It was an attempt to shake it up and alter the dynamics of the space a little bit.” In addition, the designed placed a partially visible bedroom at the rear of the set, because the author “is specific about the fact that Winston sleeps in the living room and Jamie and Ameila sleep in the bedroom.” Oddly, the script also requires the kitchen not have a sink, so the characters did all their washing up in the bathroom, another room that was partly visible, at stage left.

2.Color palette. Madame Melville’s setting featured white walls, with a blue surround that helped “float” the stage. “We looked at many French movies from that decade,” says Lynch, “including several Truffaut and Godard pictures, as well as the Last Tango in Paris. A common aesthetic of many older apartments is they were painted white, with herringbone wood floors.” The Credaux Canvas setting was much grungier, with dirty-white walls, and it took some work to get that effect. “We distressed it a fair amount,” says McLane. “The crew painted the walls a dark gray, with a lot of stains and movement; then they came in with white paint and put it on with rollers, so it covered the gray incompletely.” The result was suitably depressing:. “If you did this in your own home, you would definitely give it another coat of white,” he adds.

3.Props. In both sets, little details revealed much about the characters. The Madame Melville apartment was notable for a number of realistic French period props, all of which were hard to find. “There was an endless search for books in London and New York,” says Lynch. “It’s astonishing how many books you need to fill shelves. The books were chosen not only for their publishing date, but for their colors,” to blend into the set. Other props, including milk bottles and a very period-correct telephone were found in London. Many of these props, including a decaying chaise longue, were shipped from England for the New York engagement. The play’s period was also suggested by two movie posters used as wall decorations—one for Mon Oncle, starring revered French comic Jacques Tati, and The Cardinal, Otto Preminger’s steamy 1963 epic about the turbulent life of a Roman Catholic priest. One prop was especially crucial to the plot, a period novelty item titled “60 French Girls Sing.” Fortunately, Nelson had a copy of it. “We kept making color Xeroxes of it,” says Lynch. “It we lost that, it would have been a disaster.”

McLane says that director Michael Mayer wanted the set to look as real as possible. “So I had my assistants photograph where they live, and their friends’ homes as well.” Telling details included a poster for an exhibition by French photographer Robert Doisneau. “I thought that belonged to Jamie,” says the designer; “he fancies himself a bon vivant.” Another amusing touch was a pair of small paintings of those big-eyed children popularized by the artist Walter Keane. Other wall decorations included a schedule from the Film Forum (a big hangout for artistic-minded slackers) placed on the wall, a poster from the Fellini film La Dolce Vita, and a pair of those city notices explaining garbage collection practices, which are placed in a hallway that was partly visible when the apartment’s front door was open. To establish Winston’s identity as a painter, there was a pile of canvases, FedEx boxes, and other miscellaneous items in his working space.

In both cases, the setting’s effects were achieved by the meticulous buildup of many details, which, when assembled, were capable of taking audiences into another world. The setting for Madame Melville was built by Atlantic Studios, Inc. Patrick Mann was the scenic artist. Adrian Jones was assistant to the set designer, with Fontini Dimou and Jane Mancini serving as associates on the design of the London set. Helen Wilding accqured props in London, with Denise J. Grillo of Offstage Design shopping for props in New York. John Patrick Nord was properties master. Atlantic Studios also built the setting for The Credaux Canvas. Shoko Kambara was assistant set designer, with Jung Kim Griffin as properties mistress and Dong H. Kim and Veronica Murphy as properties as assistants. Jeffrey Drucker was technical director and Stephen Bert was stage carpenter. The Credaux Canvas closed on June 17, while Madame Melville closed on June 23.

Photos: Joan Marcus