HOMOSEXUALITY AND PROMISCUITY aren't shocking anymore. What's shocking is that at the 1933 debut of Noël Coward's Design for Living, old-timey moralists didn't have Coward shipped off to a halfway home for wayward gays.
Even after 77 years, Coward's love-triangle script retains its wit, excitement, and convention-flouting bravado. Coward so goes there. Unfortunately, the performances from Artists Repertory Theatre do not. Oh, and did I mention that you'll be struggling with said performances for over three hours? From start to finish, including two intermissions, it outlasts Avatar by 30 minutes.
And so it goes: Ennui-filled Gilda (Sarah Lucht) resents the expectations of her Paris socialite life—cocktail parties, eyelash batting, and domestic management all gnaw at her. She cheats on husband Otto Sylvus (Todd Van Voris), a painter of mid-level success, with his friend, the wiry, well-manicured playwright Leo Mercure (Michael Mendelson). Couplings form and break as we get to know the central trio for the heedless, unfulfilled sophisticates they are. Eventually, everyone screws with or over everyone else. It takes awhile.
As the ménage à trois unfolds, the chemistry between the characters is sorely lacking. Where there should be passion, there's groping. Where there should be sparkling banter, there's dialogue. Of course, it's very good dialogue, and when Coward's bon mots are hit, it's quite funny. However, with a storyline based on the attractions of these people to themselves and to each other, the absence of chemistry is crippling.
Furthermore, the required British accents are a distraction for the audience and most of the players, turning acting and speaking into competing activities. Mendelson brings plenty of energy to neurotic Leo, but has trouble regulating it and it comes out flailing. Van Voris emerges as the best multitasker of the bunch. His self-assured desire for Gilda is believable, if somewhat reminiscent of a bull charging a toreador. Vana O'Brien as the sour maid is also an unexpected comic treat.
However, Lucht falls flat as Gilda, not capturing the grace and timing that the role requires. There are big roles to fill here, and my hunch, based on reputations, is that these actors will settle into the parts. On the other hand, I'm even more confident that this brilliant, challenging play won't be staged in Portland again anytime soon.