DESIGN FOR LIVING, Goodman Theatre. A truth you’d never guess from David Petrarca’s wrong-hearted revival: the ardor behind this once daring 1933 work, Noel Coward’s least conventional comedy. He celebrates three artists–a painter, playwright, and interior designer–who love one another in toto more than any two can in tandem; these life forces have earned the right to reject marriage for Coward’s “three-handed spiritual Ping-Pong.” Zestfully, Coward contrasts their “untidy” lives with the stodgy respectability of “permanent spectator” Ernest, the slug who marries Gilda only to learn she belongs to an unmatched set.

Coward wants us to love his threesome almost as much as he does and they do one another. Perversely, Goodman’s revival registers none of that passion. Lucinda Faraldo, Ian Barford, and Christian Camargo generate not a scintilla of erotic energy–bisexual, heterosexual, or homosexual–let alone a sense of carefree freedom. At best they suggest exquisite codependency, at worst a smug snobbishness and insufferable narcissism, the opposites of stylish charm and cosmopolitan sophistication. Their menage a Coward is so dreary that spectators may justifiably prefer Lawrence MacGowan’s priggish but passionate Ernest.

Another mistake: Petrarca attempts to prove the persistence of free love by setting the first act in the 1930s, the second in the 1960s, and the third in the 1980s–though the amorous trio never age. This tactic allows Michael Yeargan to produce three separate sets, showing off the budget as much as his own skills, but it adds nothing to a staging that only subtracts from the work.

–Lawrence Bommer