Chicago Theatre Review
More Than a Touch of Class
Design for Living – Northlight Theatre
The flamboyant Englishman Noel Coward was known as a composer, director, actor and singer, but he was best known for his witty, devilishly wicked and insightful plays about the upper classes. Known for his poise, personal style and a cheeky sense of chic, Coward is best remembered for his comedies, particularly those written between 1925 and 1941. They include such beloved hits as “Private Lives,” “Blithe Spirit,” “Hay Fever,” “Fallen Angels” and “Present Laughter.” “Design for Living” became popular in its original 1933 Broadway debut, particularly because it starred the playwright himself, along with famed acting team Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. It achieved box office success later that year in a film version, although Ben Hecht’s adapted screenplay bore little resemblance to Coward’s original work. Now director Derek Bertelsen has given Chicago a slick, high spirited and very funny production that Noel Coward would’ve enjoyed.
In the world of the wealthy, privileged and spoiled, Coward spins a frivolous tale of fluff about three young people who, over years of knowing each another, have become somewhat of a family unit. Gilda loves Leon; Gilda also loves Otto; and Leo and Otto not only love Gilda, but they love each other. However when Gilda finds herself alone with Leo in Paris, the two of them decide that they might be a better combination as a duo, running off together to London. But when Otto returns from his travels, Gilda realizes how much she’s missed her other partner, and the pair decide to set up housekeeping together. After Gilda grows tired of Otto and leaves for New York, Leo and Otto accidentally meet again and rekindle their flame for each other. They decide to seek out Gilda, only to discover that she’s now in Manhattan and married to their mutual friend, Ernest. Upon reuniting with the two boys, she realizes how much she’s missed both Leo and Otto. Gilda then tells Ernest that she’s decided to divorce him in order to return to the company of Leo and Otto and to live together in a blissful menage a trois.
This entire cast is superb, particularly thanks to the guidance and energetic staging by their accomplished director, Mr. Bertelsen. Cameo characters featured in but a scene or two, such as the exquisite Joan McGrath as Grace, Amber Snyder as the confused maid, Miss Hodge, and Connor Baty as the snooty Mr. Birbeck, twinkle like ice in a gin and tonic and help illuminate the stage. Even the manner in which Derek has choreographed his modest scenic changes brims with style and entertainment.
The magnetic, multitalented Kevin Webb, whose star has sparkled in many other productions, such as “Under the Rainbow Flag,” “The Secret Garden” and “Coraline,” is stylish and chic as Leo. Appearing very comfortable in this character’s skin, Mr. Webb radiates confident arrogance and superiority in everything he says and does. He’s wonderfully matched by Matthew Gall as an egocentric Otto. Exhibiting the same amount of ease and assurance, both Mr. Webb and Mr. Gall maneuver their way through the stylish apartments and salons, straight into the heart of Gilda. Both young actors actually look as if they’d just stepped from the society pages, circa 1933. Their manner and style are absolutely flawless.
Gilda is played with proper dash, deportment and deft by the lovely Carmen Molina. Sporting a resume filled with such diverse credits as “Heat Wave” and “A Doll’s House,” Ms. Molina creates a cynical romantic, an elegant interior designer who’s always eloquent, cunning and in full control of all situations. The handsome, ever reliable Edward Fraim plays Ernest, an art dealer with a particular weakness for Gilda who, upon marrying her, thinks he’s rescued the maiden from the sexual hodgepodge she’s been mired in for years. Upon returning to his Manhattan apartment and finding Leo and Otto lounging in his pajamas, Mr. Fraim creates one of his personal best theatrical moments.
This production isn’t only verbally entertaining; it’s a visual masterwork. It sets a new standard in style and class. G. Max Maxin IV’s gorgeous, yet deceptively simple scenic and lighting design is masterful. A web of golden Art Deco is highlighted by select pieces of furniture here and there; all of this is watched over by a large picture window, featuring the recognizable skyline of each locale. Kallie Noelle Rolison’s period, yet tongue-in-cheek modern soundtrack, sets the mood for each scene. But it’s John Nasca’s sumptuous costumes, perfectly designed and tailored with such care, that it takes this production far above most. It’s a fashion show, with a runway that tells the audience much about each character. The hats and handbags are stunning and the gorgeous men’s neckties are alone worth the ticket price. Everything worn by these fortunate actors in this production bespeaks culture and fine taste and, along with lovely hair and makeup designs by Brian Estep, is pure perfection.
Pride Films & Plays has truly raised the bar high, setting a new standard for excellence in storefront productions. Derek Bertelsen has brought so much skill and artistry to this show, directing this production with energy and an eye for detail. With an understanding of style, class and period, Mr. Bertelsen brings to life Noel Coward’s much welcomed, but seldom produced comedy of manners and social standing, presenting it in a very intimate setting. He’s guided his talented cast and gifted crew of supporting artists into a must-see production that Chicago will be talking about for a long time to come.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 22-November 22 by Pride Films & Plays at Rivendell Theater, 5779 N. Ridge, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 800-737-0984 or by going to www.pridefilmsandplays.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.