DESIGN FOR LIVING by Noel Coward, directed by Morris Panych (Shaw). Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Runs in rep to November 18. $45-$86. 1-800-511-7429. See Out of Town, page 102. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Don't expect Noel Coward's design For Living to be the laughfest you'd get in some of the British writer's most popular plays, like Private Lives, Hay Fever or Blithe Spirit.
Instead, it's a mostly serious statement with a few comic moments of his own philosophy of personal relationships and his refusal to let society dictate whom he could love. Or how many people could be part of that relationship.
At its centre is a trio, sometimes a threesome, made up of Gilda ( Nicole Underhay ), Otto ( Graeme Somerville ) and Leo ( David Jansen ). Each of the first two acts has Gilda involved with one of the men yet drawn to the other, while in the third she has married someone else and finds Leo and Otto in hot pursuit of her.
Director Morris Panych 's smart production, with a note-perfect cast, explores the ins and outs of their relationship, where vectors of emotional force keep shifting direction but never let go of any of the parties. Otto describes the way the three relate as a kind of "three-handed, spiritual ping-pong."
Lots of sharp-edged flirting goes on, but it can never lead to marriage. As Gilda rather nastily but wisely says, "Marriage would upset my moral principles."
One of the best scenes comes at the end of act two, where the two men drink, fight and, in an unusual way, spend the night together. In the hands of the talented Somerville and Jansen, it's sad, funny and sweet all at the same time.
The rest of the cast nicely supports the three central performers, especially Jane Johanson as an uptight maid and Lorne Kennedy as an art dealer friend of the three, who in the final act stands in as the spokesman for conventional society.