STOCKBRIDGE -- It happened in a flash.

The minute Ariana Venturi, Chris Geary and Tom Pecinka -- the three of them MFA candidates at Yale School of Drama -- read Noel Coward's 1933 comedy "Design For Living," they knew it was written for them.

"It was an instant love of this play," Geary said during an interview with his fellow actors and their director, Tom Story, in a studio at Berkshire Theatre Group's Lavan Cen ter, where they were in re hearsal for the comedy, which opened Saturday at BTG's Unicorn Theatre and where it is scheduled to run through Aug. 16. (A review will appear later this week).

"We just knew we had to do it. So, at a lunch break, we called Kate (Maguire, CEO and artistic director of BTG, who had brought them to Stockbridge last summer to perform in "The Cat and the Canary," also in the Unicorn) and she got right back to us and gave us a go-ahead."

At the same time, Maguire contacted Story, who began his professional acting career 16 years ago at the Unicorn.

"Kate knew I loved the play, had studied it, had acted in it (at Shakespeare Theatre Com pany in Washington, D.C.)," Story said. "She knew I was just starting directing. Here was an opportunity to, essentially, make my professional directing debut in the same theater in which I had begun my professional acting career 16 years ago, fresh out of Juilliard. I said ‘yes' immediately.


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Coward wrote "Design For Living" -- which traces, over a period of four years, the fortunes and misfortunes in a ménage a trois among an interior designer named Gilda (Venturi), a playwright named Leo (Pecinka) and an artist named Otto (Geary) -- for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fon tanne, who performed it in its premiere in New York, along with Coward. It took six years for the play to cross the Atlantic to London, where the racy comedy had raised the eyebrows of the Lord Cham berlain, who was in charge of licensing and censoring theatrical entertainment (the centuries-old post was abolished in 1968). Rex Harrison, Anton Wolbrook and Diana Wynyard played the leads.

While "Design For Living" was written in the early Thirties, it speaks to today's generation in part, Pecinka says, because of its view of gay and heterosexual relationships; its exploration of the dynamics of a freewheeling relationship among three people who are close friends, peers and lovers.

That's not all, says Story.

"The play is witty, funny, sexy but it's about something. It's about people who don't fit; people who are unconventional in a conventional society. It's about finding out how you fit in when you don't fit in."

"These characters have so much heart," Venturi added. "Coward's style is so strong but so is the heart. His wit is not superficial here. These people speak their own language."

Leo, Otto and Gilda are just a bit older than Pecinka, Geary and Venturi. So, rather than age his actors, Story is "youth ening" Coward's characters.

"It's great to watch the play that way," says Venturi. "There is no older and wiser."

"It's a play about people who make mistakes. What does that mean for our characters?" Pecinka asked rhetorically.

"They are passionate people who just want to fight for their ideals and it destroys them."

"Design For Living" is not among Coward's more frequently produced plays.

"I think audiences have a difficult time with it," Pecinka said, "because its tone is somewhat different than the Coward people know from ‘Private Lives' or ‘Blithe Spirit' (both of which were written later)."

"These characters put their souls on the line," Geary said. "They can't put anything past one another. They are so deliciously self-centered.

"But in reading the play, what became clear to me was these people's need for love, from deep down in the bottom of the gut.

"To have two people you're madly in love with well, that is a joy to play."