WILLIAMSTOWN -- Of all the British playwrights, Noel Coward might be the toughest for American actors to tackle. Shakespeare, Shaw, Pinter, and Stoppard all present obvious difficulties, but at least their world seems identifiable.
Coward's often remarkable wit, on the other hand, is dandified, constrained, and closeted to the point that the actor must be able to maintain a stiff upper lip while giving the rest of the body free rein. It's like rubbing your stomach and patting your head while trying to speak with a British accent. Also, the rarefied world of upper-class swells seems barren to present-day egalitarian sensibilities unless the actors bring that world to life.
This is clearly not the case for the Williamstown Theatre Festival's ``Design for Living,'' in which the admirable Marisa Tomei drowns in Coward's torrent of witticisms (which have rarely seemed less funny) and Steven Weber barely keeps his head above water. Hugh Landwehr's sets are sumptuous - a Paris artist's loft, a London apartment, and a New York house devoted to modern art. But basking in this luxury isn't enough. The dialogue eventually needs to warm the ears the way the sets warm the eyes.
Fortunately, Campbell Scott is on hand and he has Coward down and (just the least bit) dirty. The story revolves around an artist's (Scott) and a playwright's (Weber) love for the free-spirited Gilda (Tomei). She loves them both. The artist and the playwright love each other. But mostly each is in love with his or her own silly self, which means that we're decidedly not in love with any of them. It's hard to imagine either of the artists painting or writing anything of worth, and Gilda never seems more than window dressing.
As played in this three-hour production, "Design for Living'' is lesser Coward, an ode to his friendship with Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt - the threesome starred in the premiere. A menage Áa trois seemed risky in 1933 but history, like scenery, only gets you so far, particularly since Coward was probably more interested in the undeveloped relationship between the two men. The bohemianism here may be admirable for its day, but today it seems about as superficial as "La Vie Boheme'' in "Rent.''
And when the biggest laugh comes from a belch by Weber, you know you're in the presence of a gassy production.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.