Controversial, even so-called "immoral" art is never in short supply, but to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, morality has nothing to do with it. Art either works or it doesn’t.
So when Noël Coward, the celebrated English playwright, finished "Design for Living" in the 1930s, he knew it would court controversy: In the era of prohibition and vice squads, he had written a play about a love triangle.
What he couldn’t know was that his play would be good enough to last long after his death.
"Design for Living" has resurfaced in a new production from Austin Shakespeare, opening Thursday and continuing through Feb. 24 at the Long Center’s Rollins Studio Theatre.
"I didn’t think of it as a revival, because it’s so rarely done," says director Ann Ciccolella.
Although "Design" returned to London’s Old Vic theater in 2011, in 1932 a London premiere was not in the cards: Coward knew it couldn’t pass the censors. Broadway was much more open to the idea, and that’s where it ended up.
With all the talk of censorship and taboos that follow the play, we tend to forget to add an important detail: It’s a comedy.
"Myself and the cast are both very surprised in how intricate the story is," says Ciccolella. "It’s a comedy but it has a lot of drama and genuine character. … It’s not just clever language."
Coward was famous for his turns of phrase, and Ciccolella calls the play "highly literate." The words on the page helped elevate the play from a slapstick physical comedy to something more thoughtful and provocative.
"It’s not a bedroom farce," Ciccolella says. "It’s not that at all."
The characters meet in their early 20s in where else but bohemian Paris. As their fortunes rise, the trio moves to London and New York. Different settings, different lives, but their old habits die hard.
The play stars Martin Burke, Helen Merino and Michael Miller. The play will depend on their chemistry, and Ciccolella says "they’re very funny physically," as well as with Coward’s witty dialogue.
It’s no surprise that in Austin, a city that’s still in touch with its art deco stylings, that the set designers were excited to bring the iconic look of the 1930s alive.
They also had some help from Austin painter Emilie Houssart.
"I couldn’t resist dabbling in Noël Coward’s songs," Ciccolella adds. "Before I started researching the play I didn’t know he had written like 400 songs."
Noël Coward cabaret songs will be sung live throughout the evening, before the play begins, and during the two intermissions.
"I just thought it would make for a more entertaining evening. Any excuse to put some music in," Ciccolella says.
If only the good plays live on, it’s often because they are able provoke audiences for hundreds, even thousands of years. In staging "Design," Ciccolella says they were surprised at the play’s ability to surprise.
And, "it is sexy," she says.
"We think we’re all so sophisticated," she adds. "But we’re not so blasé about sexual relationships as we think we are."