DESIGN FOR LIVING by Noel Coward. Directed by Gary Pearle; setting by Tom Lynch; costumes by Marjorie Slaiman; lighting by William Mintzer.

With Judith Ivey, John, John Getz, Brad O'Hare, Pandora Bronson, Richard Lupino, Peter Crombie, June

At Arena Stage through Dec. 30. CAPTION: Picture, Brad O'Hare Judith Ivey, John Getz.

The idea of casting a Noel Coward romance with young, unknown but stylish actors in lieu of the usual slightly-over-the-hill-and-down-in-the-mouth stars sounds refreshing. Unfortunately, it does not play quite as well as it sounds -- or it did not at Arena Stage last night.

In 1962, the subject matter of "Design for Living" -- a "disgusting, three-sided romantic hodge-podge," as one character put it -- was fairly sensational.

Coward wrote the play not only for the joy of being shocking and amusing simultaneously, but also to provide parts for himself, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, "at the exact moment in our careers when we felt that we could all three play together with a more or less equal degree of success." That intimidating casting standard may explain why the ply is not often produced not, and why we see so much more of "Private Lives," which requires only two commanding stars, or "Present Laughter," which requires only one.

At Arena, the parts of Leo the playwright, Otto the painter and Gilda the interior decorator are played by Brad O'Hare, John Getz and Judith Vey, three intelligent attrractive and graceful actors for whom, alas, the whole period motif of brittle, leisured decadence is an obvious trial. Their accents alone (probably needlessly emphatic) seem to have absorbed so much of these actors' energies that a far too small supply remains for the deeper business at hand -- conveying threesome's casual love of luxury the soft shadings of the characters and the fluttering shifts of their moods.

But if you can adjust your expectations a notch downward, there are many inventive touches and spry passages in this "Design for Living." Gary Pearle, who directed the splendid musical review "Tintypes" at Arena's Old Vat Room last spring knows how to keep a show moving and how to accent a gesture or motivation without socking his audience in the cheek.

Arena's costume shop and resident costume designer Marjorie Slaiman have produced a wardrobe that looks so good and so right that the actors must have drawn extra inspiration from their clothes. Tom Lynch's scenery, which starts out somewhat unimaginatively with Ott's Paris studio in Act One, builds to an enterprising climax with the grand New York penthouse in Act Three, complete with its ostentatious sculpture and brass gong.

Among the supporting cast, Richard Lupino not only seems quite at home with Noel Coward but ideally sober and quizzical for the part of Ernest the art dealer. Peter Crombie and Jill Larsen, as a nonplussed American couple in the last act, are convincing foils for the principals' verbal fireworks. And each of the three stars has at least one conspicuously useful quality: O'Hare, for example, has a look and bearing that are thoroughly British and thoroughly 1930s; Ivey has a light, emancipated air; and Getz, perhaps the most impressive of the three, has a deft way with rolling, romantic dialogue.

The play itself speeds blithely along from witticism to witticism like a foaming river in a deep gorge. But it is not, on cold analysis, a very pleasant piece of work. Its author seems to have been a man who made a comfortable but glum adjustment to success, as his playwright Leo did.

"It's inevitable that the more successful I become, the more people will run after me," says Leo. "I don't believe in their friendship, and I don't take them seriously, but I enjoy them. Probably a damn sight more than they enjoy me!"

When Gilda, who shows unusual spunk early in the play, tells leo he is letting sycophants waste his time and sap his vitality, he replies: "Let them! I've got lots of time and lots of vitality."

The play begins with Otto and Gilda living together in Otto's Paris studios. Then Otto is supplanted by Leo. Then Leo by Otto. Then both by Gilda's old friend Ernest, who she marries during the intermission between Acts Two and Three.

But through all these comings and goings and attendant disagreements, this threesome represents a cockeyed vision of complete sympathy, even shared consciousness. Otto, Gilda and Leo have the same taste in everything, especially each other. Their spats are mere games and contrivances.

"We love her more than anyone else in the world and always shall," Leo announces at one point, speaking for Otto, too. "We saw her last night and we know."

What binds them together, basically is a genteel loathing for the mass of humanity, rather curdely and patronizingly vented upon the servants and the Americans in the play, but more delicately expressed in the abstract by Gilda. "The human race is a letdown," she says. ". . It thinks it's risen above the primeaval slime," but the slime is "still clinging to us, clinging to our hair and our eyes and our souls."

Coward's plays -- and this one especially -- are a bewildering mixture of graceful form and grim content. But they need more grace than Arena has been able to contribute this time around.