Coward play

The Huntington Theatre's numbing production of Noel Coward's ''Design for Living'' badly needs a new lease on life. Not that there is all that much life in the play itself. If it is possible for a comedy of manners to become too mannered, Coward's play flirts dangerously with the possibility. The work becomes so wrapped up in its own stylishness that it takes on a static art-deco posture.

The acting and directing at the Huntington conspire to keep this pose from ever taking sensate form. There is, in short, much design, but little living in this vacant evening at the theater.

From a Boston arts contributor:

It's a sad thing that Lanford Wilson's ''The Fifth of July,'' now playing at the New Ehrlich Theatre, is on its way to becoming dated - that audiences will someday snicker at the foibles of a group of former '60s radicals who've come together for a 4th of July reunion.

Even if their style of posturing, frequently foul language, and bizarre dress date them, their concerns - the process of letting go of the past and taking steps toward maturity - are timeless.

All of the characters have steps to take. For Vietnam vet Ken (played by Ed Merullo), it is overcoming his fear of being unable to teach elementary school because of his artificial legs. His sister June (Deborah Battis) must shed an unresolved attraction for the loud and greasy John. Aunt Sally (Nell Sykes) needs to let go of her husband's ashes, which she's kept for a year in a candy box.

Under the thorough and tender direction of Judy Braha - last season's Boston Theatre Critics' Circle Award winner - the characters are all rich and full, the relationships true. The play is a mosaic of looks met and unmet, extended hands grasped or rebuffed.

There are some very nice touches: the dull-witted Wes (Joshua Perlstein) eating yogurt out of a pocket in the front of his overalls; young Shirley, who runs around growling and sputtering through her braces. The set is saggy and comfortable, one of the homiest I've ever seen.

There are also problems: The imploring looks and the touching are sometimes too excessive, such as the first scenes, which are so nasty and humorless it's hard to see what ever made the friends so close. But it all calms down, warms up - and the well-oiled ensemble work wins us over.

The ''Fifth of July'' runs through Nov. 6. After that, it will be just a little older and more dated.

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