DESIGN FOR LIVING, at Arena Stage through December 30.
The obvious person to blame would be Noel Coward. His wit is supposed to be diamond-sharp, and in "Design for Living" at Arena Stage, it's pretty lackluster. There are some sparkles, but those are like flashes from costume jewelry, with no real depth.
Is this because his 1933 play about the shocking domestic arrangements of artists doesn't survive changing sexual standards?
Listen to the heroine: "The only reasons for me to marry would be these: To have children; to have a home; to have a background for social activities and to be provided for. Well, I don't like children; I don't wish for a home; I can't bear social activities, and I have a small but adequate income of my own. I love Otto deeply, and I respect him as a person and as an artist. To be tied legally to him would be repellent to me and to him, too. It's not a dashing Bohemian gesture to Free Love: we just feel like that, both of us."
Is that dated? On the contrary, isn't it a statement you could now hear, made with equal force, any day of the week? The argument between improvising and formalizing one's sexual ties is raging more furiously than ever.
The difference is that Coward's play was written when that approach seemed original, and now it has become a conventional position, especially for young people who are sometimes given to reversing themselves later in life.
To make "Design for Living" live, therefore, it is more important than ever that its leading characters -- a female interior designer, a male painter and a male playwright who try living in all possible twosomes before settling down as a threesome -- be people of stature whose behavior is significant. Three creative people of tremendous vitality, charm and self-confidence could make the philosophical case for freedom effectively.
That's where the Arena production, and not Noel Coward, is to blame for the lost sharpness. Coward specifies that both men have achieved a high degree of professional success and are courted and adulated by the leaders of conventional society. The woman is moderately successful in her field, but apparently of tremendous personal magnetism -- the others all continue to worship her, no matter how she treats them.
In playing this trio, Judith Ivey, John Getz and Brad O'Hare come across as agreeable exponents of loose living, but hardly as compelling personalities creating trend-setting living arrangements. They don't seem to be magnificently above convention; they could even be just going through a stage. They seem too lightweight for their sexual choices to be of any concern to anyone but themselves. They even seem too young to have made up their own minds about how they want to live.
There's that quality to the entire production, directed by Gary Pearle with a cast composed almost entirely of newcomers to Arena Stage. Whatever the ages of the actors, they come across as playing at being grown-up. The glittering polish of English 1930s sophisticates is lacking. They aren't convincing as being English, let alone as trend-setting celebrities.
And certainly they don't seem to be people capable of creating an original design for living.