Noel Coward's "Design for Living" is a smart, witty, often rambunctious play, and as offered by the Richmond Triangle Players it features a trio of charming, attractive and often hilarious lead actors who play off each other with endearing abandon. It's a perfectly delightful production and yet, somehow falls short of exceptional.
The problem is context. Even by the time the play opened in London in 1939, six years after its Broadway premiere, British journalists were saying it "already seems a trifle faded." The subject matter could be considered risqué and even a bit tawdry. But today, Coward's elegant prose dances around topics that demand a more straightforward reckoning.
This dance plays out over three acts. Each one finds the beautiful Gilda (Jennie Meharg) living with a different man in a new glamorous location. She starts out with the painter Otto (Jeffrey Cole) in his cluttered Paris studio, moves to London where newly successful playwright Leo (Mat Polson) has a flat, and ultimately finds herself in a New York penthouse with art dealer Earnest (Michael Hawke). To handle the international hobnobbing, set designer David Allan Ballas has constructed three clearly differentiated and nicely appointed locales.
Gilda's moving around doesn't represent some profound indecision but rather an inability to handle what's self-evident: She loves both Otto and Leo, who both love her and each other. This tortured triangle results in an overlong game of emotional pinball, the three lovers bouncing off each other recklessly. Gilda eventually finds solace in the arms of the paternal Earnest before Otto and Leo arrive to upset the apple cart one last time. Costume designer Alex Valentin outfits everyone in particularly striking frocks for this giddy final scene.
As the sole woman in a veritable sea of suitors, Meharg's lithe and energetic Gilda brims with intelligence, ambition and anxiety. She's at war with society's view of propriety and her own femininity, taking particular umbrage at Earnest's propensity for using metaphors that compare her to animals. Cole plays Otto as the most earthy, boyish member of the trio, usually playful but with a threatening rumble of gravel in his voice when wounded. In the role originally filled by the playwright, Polson makes a perfect stand-in for Coward, droll and sanguine with just a touch of swish.
And that swish hints at just one of many topics that dwell in the corners of this play frustratingly unexamined. Through his characters, Coward makes broad statements about the limitations of convention and the narrow-mindedness of religion. But any overt sexuality, bisexuality in particular, is only flirted with, and the challenges of monogamy are never addressed. The subject that underscores the whole proceeding — the unique restraints and expectations faced by women — propels the action but avoids any serious scrutiny.
Near the play's end, Earnest calls the relationship between the three central lovers a "disgusting three-sided erotic hotch-potch," an easy dismissal of an unconventional arrangement. "Design for Living" is highly entertaining and very amusing, but in an age when fluid sexuality and open relationships are gaining acceptance, its ending feels like the beginning of a much more interesting story. S
"Design for Living" runs through Oct. 18 at the Triangle Players' Theatre, 1300 Altamont Ave. Visit rtriangle.org or call 346-8113 for tickets and information.