'Design For a Living' entertaining, not substantial

The three lovers in Noel Coward’s play “Design for Living” are every bohemian college kid’s dream. They’re all successful artists. They live in decadent Art Nouveau apartments and Spartan painting studios in London, Paris and New York. They have a steamy, sexually deviant love triangle. And they all manage to suffer social oppression while staying witty and eccentric.

This is the life of Coward’s 1930s cosmopolitans, Gilda (Bridget Elise Winder), Otto (Thaddeus Fitzpatrick) and Leo (Adam Vanek), who apparently all love each other equally. They stand at the forefront of cultural liberation and spend it drinking sherry and swapping partners in a bisexual ménage à trois. Monogamous society has thrown them into an endless game of odd-man-out that leaves two together while one waits in agony for someone to sleep with.

They also have lots and lots of dazzling conversation, working through their shared angst with unending razor-sharp English retort, pausing only to take a breath and remind the audience that everybody’s still in love. Winder, Fitzpatrick and Vanek rattle through the barrage of words with grace and finesse while keeping their relationship crackling with electricity.

Coward’s lovers are quick to harm and quick to forgive; director Jimmy Contos gives us pure love that’s been corrupted, not by the lovers, but by a society that can’t handle it.

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But while their love is pure, it’s also petty. With nods to Freudian psychology and primitivism, Coward tries to paint a struggle between the human heart and artificial moral standards, but set against bourgeois decadence, it just ends up condescending and kitsch.

And the play is long. The sparkling back-and-forth is fun but meanders, moving us forward in a tiresome outward spiral and stretching its themes out over two and a half hours. As the banter rolls on, the characters just get more shallow and narcissistic.

Of course, none of this is the fault of the University’s production, which does its best to make the script relevant. But it can never get past its own snobbishness, unwittingly reducing modernism, feminism and the sexual revolution to diversions of the cultured. And history, which bookends the woes of our delightfully snarky eccentrics between the Great Depression and World War II, does no favors.

The University crew finds Coward’s spark and edge, but when the wit wears off, “Design” leaves us with nothing to feel for.

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