It's possible for a work of art to be both ahead of its time and hopelessly behind. Noël Coward's Design for Living was written in 1932 but not performed in London until 1939 because its plot, in which a woman sleeps with an artist (Todd Van Voris), leaves him for his best friend (Michael Mendelson) and eventually joins both men in a three-way, was officially deemed too racy for British audiences. Hell, it's pretty racy for contemporary audiences. But for all its open-minded acceptance of polyamory, Design is deeply contemptuous of women.
The woman in question, Gilda (played, loudly, by Sarah Lucht in this Jon Kretzu-directed production), represents femininity as a sort of disability. Yanked back and forth by her gonads from artist to artist, she gives no impression of conscious will. Her lovers, painfully flamboyant men whose egos leave little room for others, are cads, but Gilda is barely more than an animal, driven only by lust and a hunger for a happiness she can't achieve on her own. She's described as "hysterical" by just about everyone she meets, and as far as Coward is concerned her sexual dissatisfaction may as well stem from a wandering uterus. But at least she's witty—the other female characters in the play are dumb as bricks. This is a shame. Between all the meanness and misogyny, Coward forgets he's supposed to be a comic writer.
Where Coward errs, Kretzu compounds. Artists Rep's take on Design runs over three dreary hours, as the unlikable threesome endlessly defend their sexual proclivities with shouted sarcasm. There is implicit homoeroticism in the script between Gilda's men (even Coward couldn't get away with writing openly gay characters), which Kretzu makes explicit, with kisses and lots of thigh-stroking. I can't see how this decision adds anything to the work, beyond playing into the right-wing stereotype of sexually voracious, marriage-destroying gays.
But that's a quibble—the real crime is that Van Voris, Mendelson and Lucht, three of the city's finest comic talents, are the least funny they've ever been, even falling back on slapstick as the gags collapse. Beyond a brilliant bit of heavy drinking in Act II, there's hardly a laugh to be had, and the show's final hour is torturous.
Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., 241-1278, artistsrep.org. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 pm Sundays. Closes Feb. 7. $20-$47.