YOU might be a little surprised as well as delighted by the sparkling, stylish and perverse staging of Noel Coward's "Design for Living," which the Roundabout Theater Company returned to New York last night at its American Airlines Theatre.

This production, bluntly spearheaded by Alan Cumming in high-camp gear, together with the beauteous Jennifer Ehle and the downright charming Dominic West, is an uncowardly, even brave, view of Noel Coward.

Good plays are rarely what they first seem to be. If they last, if they are to some degree or other classic, time will age them in ways that first audiences would never have expected, and even in ways the playwright hardly envisaged.

Coward was a conventional man, for his day, with an unconventional, also for his day, lifestyle. The two rarely intersected, and then, always with the discretion of ambiguity.

"Design for Living" is possibly Coward's least discreet and least ambiguous play. It also might be coming into its own as one of his best.

It is a comedy about egotistical social monsters who unfailingly put their style where their manners ought to be.

Coward had been there before in such earlier plays as "Hay Fever" and "Blithe Spirit." Like the latter, "Design for Living" concerns people who can't live with one another, yet can't live without one another. But this time, there is a twist.

There are not two lovers but three, two men and a woman, and all the connotations and combinations such an arrangement might imply.

Coward wrote it in 1932 for himself and friends Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, and when it was first produced on Broadway, its concept of a bohemian menage a trois was sensed as faintly shocking.

Yet its characters could be generalized as amusingly dissolute, decadent artists, and the relationship between the two men could be seen as warm friendship rather than anything more explicit and sexual.

But such a view was always far-fetched, a fact that did not escape the naturally suspicious minds of the British censors, who refused to license the play in Britain until 1939.

The story of living in sin and, worse, of flippant immorality and its flagrant display, was obviously more disturbing to theatergoers in the '30s than now - but Coward, laughing up his gay sleeve, went only so far.

Joe Mantello, director of the present production, has gone further. And probably he had to. He doesn't change the text, he changes the texture. Despite Bruce Pask's period costumes and Robert Brill's grandly evocative settings, this is not the '30s anymore.

For example, Leo and Otto now kiss full on the lips. This I suspect Coward and Lunt did not do, and I am certain that when I saw Rex Harrison and Anton Walbrook play the roles seven years later, had they amorously embraced, I, even in my boyish innocence, would have noticed.

And Mantello has upped the ante in other ways - from the fancy-schmanzy costumes the men wear in the last act, to the exaggerated characterization of Cumming's Otto.

I'm no expert on bisexuals, but it did seem to me that Cumming's role was conceived as too gay and West's role as too straight.

That said, both actors proved flamboyantly and joyfully commanding, while the play's famous drinking scene can never have been more tipsily hilarious.

And Ehle's earth mother Gilda was exquisite, and far more womanly - no bisexual, her - in the part than such predecessors as Diana Wynyard, Jill Clayburgh and, although I didn't see her in this play, Lynn Fontanne.

Among the lesser roles, John Cunningham has particular fun as the rich and dumpy art dealer smart enough to buy a Matisse for 800 pounds, but not smart enough to avoid marrying Gilda.

So, this is not quite the camouflaged "Design for Living" carefully designed by Coward. But, with its irresistible high spirits, it certainly lives.