Imagine Jerry Lee Lewis playing Mozart, and you have a rough idea of the Roundabout's revival of Noel Coward's "Design for Living." The 1933 play was intended as a soufflé that Coward could perform with his friends the Lunts, and all were masters of light comedy, now apparently an unobtainable commodity. "Design" is about two men and a woman who are infatuated with each other. In the first act, Gilda, who has been living in sordid digs in Paris with the painter Otto, leaves him for Leo, a successful playwright - though it is clear that Leo and Otto are as mad for one another as they are for her. In the second act, Otto wins Gilda back from Leo. In the third, Gilda, who has married the rich but stuffy art dealer Ernest, dumps him to live with both men. In a way, the trio are very modern, because the main object of their affection is themselves. They switch partners effortlessly because their main quest is for self-gratification, the partners being mere accessories. If "Design for Living" has darker undercurrents than many Coward plays, it is because of the erotic relationship between the two men. Homosexuality was provocative in 1933. It was, after all, a crime in England almost until the playwright's death 40 years later. Interestingly, "Design" was not produced in London until 1939, six years after it was done in New York. Coward did not address sexual matters explicitly. He focused, rather, on the trio's abhorrence of conformity. But these days, when practically everyone wears a ring in his nose, nonconformity is hardly an issue. Nor is homosexuality. All of which makes "Design for Living" even harder to do than it was originally. The elements of shock and titillation, which provided dramatic tension, are missing. Into this vacuum, Joe Mantello, the director, has thrown shtick. When, for example, Otto, played by Alan Cumming, first sees the long-absent Leo (Dominic West), he leaps onto him, wrapping his legs around West's waist. An act later, when Otto reclaims Gilda, he does so by somersaulting across a sofa. In my book, this falls under the heading of acrobatics rather than acting. Cumming's performance is also full of the boyish pouts and the smirking he displayed to greater effect three years ago in "Cabaret." (Does he, by the way, insist in his contract on showing us his tushie?) There is a coolness to Jennifer Ehle's Gilda, suggesting that her actions stem from calculation rather than helpless spontaneity. West makes Leo the most innocent of the lot, the only one capable of simple affection. Perhaps if there were less cavorting and more believable emotional ties between the three, the play might not seem so strained. John Cunningham is good as the stolid Ernest, though his sputtering outrage at the end seems overdone, given how outrageously the other three have behaved from the start. Marisa Berenson, who has a cameo as a society woman, has less presence on stage than she did on the screen. Jenny Sterlin practically steals the show in the small role of a shocked maid. Robert Brill's sets also seem overdone, though Gilda's New York apartment has an imposing spareness. Only Bruce Pask's costumes have the easy elegance that ought to characterize the whole production.
You might be a little surprised as well as delighted by the sparkling, stylish and perverse staging of Noel Coward's "Design for Living," which the Roundabout Theater Company returned to New York last night at its American Airlines Theatre.
This production, bluntly spearheaded by Alan Cumming in high-camp gear, together with the beauteous Jennifer Ehle and the downright charming Dominic West, is an uncowardly, even brave, view of Noel Coward.
Good plays are rarely what they first seem to be. If they last, if they are to some degree or other classic, time will age them in ways that first audiences would never have expected, and even in ways the playwright hardly envisaged.
Coward was a conventional man, for his day, with an unconventional, also for his day, lifestyle. The two rarely intersected, and then, always with the discretion of ambiguity.
"Design for Living" is possibly Coward's least discreet and least ambiguous play. It also might be coming into its own as one of his best.
It is a comedy about egotistical social monsters who unfailingly put their style where their manners ought to be.
Coward had been there before in such earlier plays as "Hay Fever" and "Blithe Spirit." Like the latter, "Design for Living" concerns people who can't live with one another, yet can't live without one another. But this time, there is a twist.
There are not two lovers but three, two men and a woman, and all the connotations and combinations such an arrangement might imply.
Coward wrote it in 1932 for himself and friends Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, and when it was first produced on Broadway, its concept of a bohemian menage a trois was sensed as faintly shocking.
Yet its characters could be generalized as amusingly dissolute, decadent artists, and the relationship between the two men could be seen as warm friendship rather than anything more explicit and sexual.
But such a view was always far-fetched, a fact that did not escape the naturally suspicious minds of the British censors, who refused to license the play in Britain until 1939.
The story of living in sin and, worse, of flippant immorality and its flagrant display, was obviously more disturbing to theatergoers in the '30s than now - but Coward, laughing up his gay sleeve, went only so far.
Joe Mantello, director of the present production, has gone further. And probably he had to. He doesn't change the text, he changes the texture. Despite Bruce Pask's period costumes and Robert Brill's grandly evocative settings, this is not the '30s anymore.
For example, Leo and Otto now kiss full on the lips. This I suspect Coward and Lunt did not do, and I am certain that when I saw Rex Harrison and Anton Walbrook play the roles seven years later, had they amorously embraced, I, even in my boyish innocence, would have noticed.
And Mantello has upped the ante in other ways - from the fancy-schmanzy costumes the men wear in the last act, to the exaggerated characterization of Cumming's Otto.
I'm no expert on bisexuals, but it did seem to me that Cumming's role was conceived as too gay and West's role as too straight.
That said, both actors proved flamboyantly and joyfully commanding, while the play's famous drinking scene can never have been more tipsily hilarious.
And Ehle's earth mother Gilda was exquisite, and far more womanly - no bisexual, her - in the part than such predecessors as Diana Wynyard, Jill Clayburgh and, although I didn't see her in this play, Lynn Fontanne.
Among the lesser roles, John Cunningham has particular fun as the rich and dumpy art dealer smart enough to buy a Matisse for 800 pounds, but not smart enough to avoid marrying Gilda.
So, this is not quite the camouflaged "Design for Living" carefully designed by Coward. But, with its irresistible high spirits, it certainly lives.
A fatal cloud hangs over the mirthless ménage à trois that is currently sulking and brooding for your entertainment at the American Airlines Theater. Oh sure, these poor, doomed lovers occasionally do madcap things like turning somersaults or prancing around in their underwear. But you can sense that they'll never be happy, with or without one another. Soon enough -- don't you know it? -- they'll be drifting arm in arm down suicide lane.
If you think of the Roundabout Theater Company production that opened last night as ''Design for Dying,'' you might be able to make some sense of it. But you should be aware that the title of record is still ''Design for Living.'' It is also rumored to be the same play by Noël Coward that, when it opened on Broadway in 1933, was described in these pages by Brooks Atkinson as a work that ''transmutes artificial comedy into delight.''
Delight is not the watchword of this latest revival, although you might be led into thinking so by the advertising campaign that features the evening's seductive stars -- Alan Cumming, Jennifer Ehle and Dominic West -- looking drunk on sexual attraction and attractiveness. Be advised that onstage they never approach the giddiness of that photographic moment. They tend to be about as gay, in the Deco-era sense of the word, as the martyrs to love in a Fannie Hurst novel.
''Design for Living'' was a huge hit almost 70 years ago with Coward, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne playing the haute bohemians who can't live without one another. Its explicit suggestion that three is comfy erotic company instead of a crowd was so shocking at the time that Atkinson warned off audience members who might ''pull a long moral face'' over Coward's ''breezy fandango.'' Atkinson also shrewdly made the point that style, not substance, was the issue. ''When 'Design for Living' sounds serious, you wish impatiently that Mr. Coward would cut the cackle and come to the main business, which is his brand of satyr comedy,'' he wrote.
Any production that features Mr. Cumming, who found fame brilliantly reinventing the decadent M.C. of ''Cabaret,'' would automatically seem to have a leg up in satyr appeal. Yet earnestness trumps sexiness again and again in this ''Design,'' which has been directed with an uncharacteristically slow and shaky hand by Joe Mantello.
Everyone, it seems, is digging for emotional truth beneath the sheen of the sharp-edged triangle made up of Otto (Mr. Cumming), a painter; Gilda (Ms. Ehle), an interior decorator; and Leo (Mr. West), a playwright. This excavation is apparently meant not only to bring out the play's homoerotic elements (which is an old game already) but also to reveal the crushing anxieties of the modern world.
In a weird way the text justifies such a reading. Gilda in particular is always saying portentous things. (''The immediate horizon is gray and forbidding and dangerous.'') But to take such pronouncements at their word, rather than as the hyperbole of a drama queen, is to turn fresh comedy into stale melodrama. Coward's genius was in skating on the bright and brittle surfaces he created, winking at the abyss beneath but never descending into it.
Mr. Mantello chooses to stare instead of wink. The first image we see is Ms. Ehle in a black slip slouched in a chair in a cluttered garret, smoking. She looks as lonely and exposed as a figure in a Hopper painting. No question about it. To borrow a Coward song title, she's got those ''20th-Century Blues.''
This mood of uneasiness is sustained, with occasional forays into broad comedy, through the rondelay of musical beds that follows. The sensibility is underscored by the nervous curtain-raising music by Douglas J. Cuomo and harsh, contemporary covers of Coward songs (including ''Blues'') by artists like Bryan Ferry and Elton John. Robert Brill's large-scale Deco sets feel deliberately dwarfing and sterile.
More than anything, though, it is Ms. Ehle's performance that sets the neurotic standard. She brought an anchoring sincerity and ardor to last season's first-rate revival of Tom Stoppard's ''Real Thing,'' for which she won a Tony. The same grave intensity is misapplied to Coward.
Ms. Ehle's Gilda seems ravaged by guilt and self-disgust. She rattles off epigrams as if she wanted to dispose of them quickly, just as you expect her to tear up Bruce Pask's opulent period costumes in a fit of repentance. Whenever she laughs, one worries that it is merely a prelude to hysterics.
Her relationship with Otto and Leo is only combative, critical. She seems to feel little sexual pull toward either man, but the bigger problem is that you never believe that this trio shares a worldview.
Mr. West, who might have stepped from a Ralph Lauren ad, has plenty of intensity but little specific personality.
Mr. Cumming, who has a few lovely moments of drollery, surprisingly plays Otto as a schlemiel, something like the childlike comic losers of silent movies. All three central performances are, on their own terms, consistent and polished, but they rarely connect.
This is a dangerous gap. For all their cauterwauling about the perils of success, the artists of ''Design for Living'' make up their own aristocracy of glamour. Who better to have represented that elite in the 1930's than Coward, Lunt and Fontanne?
These characters are brighter, wittier and more theatrical than anyone around them, and of course they have more fun. Take away their hedonistic spirit and charisma, and they turn into snobby whiners with a disproportionate sense of their own importance.
It's not a good sign when you start to sympathize with the bourgeois targets of their barbs. (The victims are nicely played here by Jessica Stone, Marisa Berenson, T. Scott Cunningham, Jenny Sterlin, Saxon Palmer and the indispensable John Cunningham.)
As for the homosexual dimension, Mr. Mantello seems to have borrowed a leaf or two from Sean Mathias's much-debated London production of 1995.
Again, when the boys invade Gilda's Manhattan apartment in the last act, Otto is wearing lipstick and eyeshadow. (How shocking!) And again, Otto and Leo drunkenly fall into each other's arms in ways that obviously go beyond the bounds of friendship.
The most authentic-feeling moment in the whole evening comes when Otto (in unflattering, baggy boxer shorts), lying platonically in Leo's arms, suddenly turns wistful with sexual longing for his chum. ''Now what?'' he asks quietly.
There's an electricity here that feels joltingly true, even as it is false to the central premise of the play. What the scene suggests is that Otto and Leo have finally discovered their true feelings for each other, and that Gilda really is, as she had feared, the superfluous figure in the triangle.
''What's in it for her?'' the woman with whom I saw the play asked irritably afterward. Perhaps three is a crowd, after all. But to believe that is to redesign ''Design for Living'' so that its whole brittle structure collapses.
Ah, to be young, in love and morally apathetic. That is how some will view the lot of Gilda, the saucy heroine of Noel Coward's romantic comedy Design for Living. A sometime interior decorator, Gilda doesn't need any man, she insists -- but she wants two of them. One is Otto, a sensitive painter who is mad about her. The other is Leo, a dashing playwright who adores her. Otto and Leo also adore each other, by the way. In fact, the men were apparently quite close when Gilda met them, if you get my drift.
Nearly 70 years after Coward wrote Design, the play retains its ability to shock and scandalize. The Roundabout Theatre Company revival ( * * * out of four), which opened Thursday at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre, is bound to disturb some theatergoers -- and not just those who consider bisexual ménages à trois too, well, out there.
The Roundabout's lush, superbly acted production makes all too clear how Gilda, and Coward, underestimate the damage that a fickle, feckless heart can inflict. If Design is one of the playwright's wittiest and most progressive works, it is also one in which his penchant for cavalier glibness is most prominent. Never mind that Gilda's inability to be faithful actually creates great pain for Otto and Leo -- not to mention an older bourgeois gentleman who provides her with emotional and financial support, only to be tossed out of his own apartment in the end. Artists are different, darling, Coward assures us repeatedly; and anyway, human suffering can be ''teddibly'' droll, so long as it takes place in an elegant setting, with plenty of cigarettes and liquor on hand.
Jennifer Ehle, winner of last year's Tony Award for best actress in a play, triumphs as Gilda, capturing the character's cool wit and feral sensuality, her frustrating self-absorption and rueful self-flagellation. Fellow Tony winner Alan Cumming imbues Otto with a delightful mix of impishness and innocence, while Dominic West is at once playful and bracingly virile as Leo, his partner and foil.
Though this dynamic trio dominates the show, there are several fine supporting performances. John Cunningham is tart and touching as Ernest, the long-suffering art dealer who tries to shield Gilda from her destructive impulses. Marisa Berenson is convincingly imperious and vapid as Grace, a pre-Tom Wolfe social X-ray, and Jessica Stone is amusingly dim as Helen, a budding Grace.
Thanks to these players, director Joe Mantello and scenic designer Robert Brill, Design is a scrumptious production -- even if the play leaves something of a sour aftertaste.