Times Theater Writer

The 17th-Century novelist and playwright Marivaux is one of that small but honorable band of artists whose name has become the root of a modifier.

Marivaudage , as the term goes, however, might as well have been stretched into Marivaubadinage. It would have made the coinage ultra clear. The word refers to the sort of flirtatious, coy and witty banter that preoccupies young couples in love and consumes seemingly inexhaustible hours of mating ritual among the well-brought-up found in . . . well, found mostly in the plays of Marivaux, De Musset, Beaumarchais and Moliere.

At the Taper, Too, Brian Kulick's staging of Marivaux's "The Game of Love and Chance" appears to understand this, but takes the performance (or allows it to go) that one maddening American step too far: It mistakes boisterousness for buffoonery and carries playfulness over the edge into pratfalls.

The puff-pastry plot of this little divertissement (wisely compressed here into an intermissionless 100 minutes) is at once intellectually emancipated and dramaturgically overused: Old friends, the fathers of two eligible youngsters, decide their children should marry, but, in an uncommon burst of enlightenment, agree that their offspring should look each other over and determine for themselves if that's what they also want.

The better to make that determination--and unknown to one another--the young Sylvia (Dana Stevens) and Dorante (Blair Underwood) independently decide to trade identities with their respective servants, Lisette (Shuko Akune) and Arlequin (Ron Campbell), in order to more freely survey the prospects.

Only Sylvia's father (Gerald Papasian) and brother (Harold J. Surratt) are aware of the twin shifting of identities. They decide to have some fun by letting this double jeopardy run on unchecked.

Of course, the lovers-turned-servants and servants-turned-lovers become hopelessly infatuated with the person each believes to be the wrong partner. And while the comic breast-beating that's inevitably unleashed is ultimately a case of all's-well-that-ends-well, its predictability, even in this abbreviated version, grows repetitive.

The reasons, however, lie more in the execution than the text. (This self-respecting English translation by Adrienne Schizzano Mandel and Oscar Mandel, with Jack Viertel serving as dramaturge, only rarely lapses into strange constructions such as "I find this man invincibly disgusting"-- invincibly ?) .

Director Kulick, who is clever and eager to show off his capacity for invention, was not clever enough to arm himself with his most fundamental tools: actors with a real sense of style.

Style is not mannerisms.

This lapse is all the more aggravating given the production's major other achievements. Designed by Mark Wendland (who also did the excellent, faintly Moorish costumes popular in Marivaux's time), the staging is simple but sumptuous--visually elegant and rich.

Yet it's not long before the failure of the actors to believe what they say and do (or at least convince us they believe it) casts a pall of artificiality over the whole. Some frivolity is forgivable and even welcome in a production that emulates the courtly masque as closely as this one does, but Marivaux's lovers are not frivolous creatures at the core, and their exchanges are made in ever-increasing earnest.

Papasian as the father, Orgon, is abundantly confident--overly so. He's a presence in absentia, too detached from his daughter's mounting anguish. Surratt, as her brother Thomas, assumes attitudes instead of finding a character; his tweaking of his hapless sister takes on a mildly cruel dimension as the inadvertent result.

The worst offenders, however, are Akune and Campbell, whose cavortings as the servants-turned-masters are allowed to turn into a petulant and overdone free-for-all.

Underwood and Stevens are better able to maintain a pleasant dignity, but even Stevens is ultimately lured by an overzealous director into excessive gimmickry--upsetting chessboards and dropping too many baskets of fruit.

Kulick's tendency to force his actors into such transparently prescribed courses of action is self-defeating. He is clearly talented, but would be more so if he remained less obtrusive.

A gap is also created in this production by the strange absence of any sort of music, either integral or incidental. While admittedly not dictated by the script, something in all of this benign duplicity and courtly frolic cries out for a score.

Music would have been easy to incorporate, either over a sound system or at the hands of a silent servant/property master (played with splendid equanimity by a masked Dana Axelrod, always ready with a pillow for a collapsing damsel--or a basket to catch the flying manifestation of a young man's frustrated fancy). He looks as if he could handily manage a lute between other assignments.

Music might have charmed the ears in the way Wendland's gorgeous silver-and-mirror settings (reminiscent of the Royal Shakespeare Company's sets of the Olympic Arts Festival "Much Ado About Nothing") reward the eyes. On the whole, though, it's a stageworthy, sometimes enchanting, sometimes merely grating presentation of a play few would dare--let alone bother to--attempt.

Performances at 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, under the old Pilgrimage Bowl, run Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., with matinees Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. (213) 972-7231, (213) 410-1062 (TELETRON) or (714) 634-1300).

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