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Two young Triangle companies are presenting concurrent productions of classic treatises on the theme of love, but the plays themselves couldn't be further apart in style, content, or approach. The first is an 18th century comedy of acute social embarrassment in the form of a masked revel. The second, a fiercely modern roundelay whose preoccupation with sexual congress masks its true subject: the natural state of homo sapiens and the essence of theatre — indeed, the only thing worth dramatizing — the human heart in conflict with itself.
Deep Dish Theatre Company weighs in with Pierre Marivaux's The Game of Love and Chance. Miravaux's plot consists of a cunning deception involving borrowed identities, complicated by a secondary reversal — the sort of narrative engine so beloved of Billy Wilder and Blake Edwards. And, like those two masters, the playwright dots his confection with hidden bitters: commentary on class, sex, and personal ethics as pertinent now as when it was first prepared — if not more so.
Alas, Stephen Wadsworth's adaptation is curiously flat-footed: lumpen, anachronistically idiomatic, rife with mixed metaphors and modern colloquialisms, and perversely devoid of elegance. The production is further coarsened by a highly variable cast and a directorial tone appropriate more to burlesque than to classical farce.
Visually, things could not be keener. Rob Hamilton's semi-representational set is a lush terrace of marbled stone, sculpted topiary, and French windows, bewitchingly offset by blue-gray cloth, beautifully complimented by the costumes of Ida: tan, crème and pale pink pastels heightened with shockingly vivid reds and blacks. (These otherwise delicious designs are marred only by a single, rather badly cut, dress for the heroine.)
Unfortunately, the usually estimable Tony Lea has directed in an oddly schizophrenic style. The aristocrats (with two notable exceptions) are delineated less by grace of bearing than mere poses, and altogether too casual in manner. A crucial scene of meeting and repartee is played utterly static while, elsewhere, determinedly frantic pacing wars with pauses enough for an evening of Pinter.
David Byron Hudson plays a valet disguised as his employer with crude buffoonery and no attempt to cover the character's natural vulgarity with even the sheerest overlay of aristocratic mien. Rick Lonon, as the heroine's father, is far too casually modern in demeanor. Alone in this family, only Byron Jennings III as the son carries himself as though to the manner born, but his characterization lacks a certain something — a dangerous edge, perhaps?
As the marriageable Sylvia, whose fierce independence sets the events in motion, Katja Hill bears a charming resemblance to Blythe Danner (lucky woman!) and has some splendid moments: slapping her own wrist while warring with her desires, and deeply moving as she contemplates her beloved's departure. But she resorts too often to harpy-like shrillness and screaming, and gabbles madly but not amusingly, thereby undercutting her own effectiveness when called on to babble deliberately.
Far more assured is the dizzy comic invention of Betsy Henderson as Lisette, Sylvia's lady-in-waiting. Called upon to impersonate her mistress, she can only throw herself into the same outrageously studied, absurdly regal pose, which, in one delirious moment, causes her to execute a perfectly timed pratfall. Yet Henderson imbues Lisette, for all her social ineptitude, with the innate, dignified reality that is the essence of satisfying comedic bravura.
Best of all is Michael Brocki as the nobleman in valet's garb. While not eschewing the character's privileged snobbery and condescension, Brocki's playing is so believably inhabited, so utterly RIGHT, that when he implores Sylvia not to love him, his despair is — despite the genial absurdity of the basic situation — genuinely and ineffably touching. He's perfectly attuned to Miravaux's astonishingly frank social satire yet grounded in the tumult to emotions it unleashes.
The Deep Dish Theater Company presents The Game of Love and Chance Wednesday, Nov. 20, at 7:30 p.m. and Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 21-23, at 8 p.m. in Chapel Hill's University Mall, located on Estes Drive and U.S. 15-501. $12 ($10 students and seniors). 919/967-6934. http://www.deepdishtheater.org/lovenchance/lovenchance.html.