One of my copies of Noel Coward's plays includes an introduction by Edward Albee, and the connection between the two dramatists came to my mind while watching the Publick Theatre's indoor production of Design for Living."In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the
important thing." -Oscar Wilde
Last year, Design's director, Spiro Veludos, treated us to Albee's institution smashing "comedy" The Goat at his home theatre The Lyric. The centerpiece of The Goat was a literal livingroom-shattering rampage by a betrayed wife.
Interestingly enough, (though the text of Design for Living has plenty of hurt feelings which are conveyed intensely by both Diego Arciniegas and Gabriel Kuttner,) Noel Coward's centerpiece is the comical destruction of the senses of two men as we watch them swill an entire bottle of brandy.
The result is both hilarious and liberating. Their humourous musings are accurate drunk speak, but their intimacy and their capacity for forgiveness are an interesting flip side of this obliteration of the world's sensical norms. "Many words become funny and make no sense if you stare at them long enough," points out Otto.
Albee and Coward are dramatists using comedy to skewer social institutions and accepted practices. To me, they are effective because their work keeps the bar out in front of the debate, and they are consistent craftsmen, who know well the structural integrity of their work.
I believe that performing and directing these works takes a special talent, wrong moves cause the constructions to tumble down. If we start to take some of the characters and situations too seriously, the whole thing can look foolish, (and not in a good way,) or worse...we start to get different ideas from what the author intended.
What a fine line it is between keeping it light and keeping the stakes high . Mike Nichols famously instructed Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford that Barefoot in the Park is King Lear to characters of Paul and Corrie, the young newlyweds who are finding out their considerable differences.
Comedy is dangerous territory for the theatre artist. We can theorize all we want, but at the end of the day, we know what we have to do. You can't fall back into analysis or cerebral rationalization. To quote Oscar Wilde again: "All bad poetry is sincere."