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Uneven New ‘Triumph of Love’

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

A staple of the Comedie Francaise, Marivaux also continues to fascinate playwrights stateside, who pour their own obsessions into his sparkling 18th century comedies. Last year at the Mark Taper Forum, Stephen Wadsworth turned “The Double Inconstancy” into a roundelay about loss of innocence that he called “Changes of Heart.” Now Richard Greenberg (“Eastern Standard,” “Night and Her Stars”) has loosed his irreverent wit on “The Triumph of Love,” featuring overt references to homosexuality, an electric leaf blower and a Sheryl Crow song, played on the banjo.

His “Triumph of Love,” which opened Friday at South Coast Repertory, in fact embraces contemporaneity. The particular callousness of its heroine and the deadpan of its clowns would not be out of place on a prime-time sitcom. And there’s nothing wrong with that: Marivaux in his own time fulfilled both highbrow and lowbrow tastes with his marvelous tales of emotional manipulation. But while Greenberg often is fantastically funny, his knowing jokes eventually flatten out the heart in the play, until a shapely and sophisticated tale winds up with the emotional impact of a Seinfeld episode.

Greenberg may have missed the poetry in Marivaux. But it has been provided by Karen TenEyck, who designed the inventive and delightful set. Creating a formal 18th century French garden, TenEyck has made the stage a whimsical essay on Enlightenment-age beliefs about art and nature. She combines flat and three-dimensional surfaces in the lawns, flowers and gorgeously green hedges, trimmed within an inch of their lives. The trees are pruned to provide odd tables for books--they look as if they are growing books. Far in the distance, a long, blue reflecting pool crowned by a fluffy-cloud sky is framed, literally, as if it were a picture hanging in the middle of an actual sky. Lighted by Tom Ruzika’s able eye, the set is the perfect embodiment of Greenberg and director Mark Rucker’s ambitions for the play.

In the opening scene our heroine, Princess Leonide (Rene Augesen), lays out the comically complicated premise. Leonide disguises herself as a man to infiltrate the country retreat where Agis lives. She loves Agis (Joshua Farrell), who actually is her enemy, since her uncle usurped the throne from his father. But to remain in the retreat, she must also seduce Agis’ mentor, the scholar Hermocrate (Patrick O’Connell) and his formidable sister Leontine (Jeanne Paulsen), switching identities with the help of two bribable household servants and her own maid Corine (Colette Kilroy)--also dressed as a man. “Listen closely and be patient,” Leonide explains early on in one of Greenberg’s knowing asides, “because after this the exposition lets up.”

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Once the exposition lets up, our heroine goes about her seductions with a kind of heartless energy. She comes off rather like a female Don Juan, attempting to satisfy an insatiable ego. Greenberg has made her a spoiled princess whose occasional fret about her cruel deceptions never seems to hurt the pleasure she takes in them. Her love for Agis--her excuse for bad behavior--seems completely shallow.

If Greenberg and Rucker meant to examine a dark, flip side of this comedy of mistaken identity, they have not gone far enough. Leonide’s frantic courtships of the uptight scholar and his matronly sister have a sameness to them that gets boring. When the two are left stranded onstage at the play’s end, they seem to have been abused for no good reason. The audience may feel stranded too.

Augesen has an open charm that could have been used to suggest a more altruistic motive for the princess, who after all is trying to reunite a divided kingdom. The cast is likable. Kilroy brings an Eve Arden best-pal sharpness to her role, and Patrick Kerr and Tom Beckett both score some points as comic morons. As Agis, Farrell starts out as just another wet noodle but, as circumstances grow dizzyingly complicated, he explodes unexpectedly into a hilarious study in frustration.

Greenberg has brought tremendous verve to his Marivaux, but his version of the play still falls short. When Harlequin sings the Sheryl Crow song “If It Makes You Happy,” he means it as an excuse for all of Leonide’s bad behavior. But one can’t help wanting this princess to be more than a spoiled valley girl.

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* “The Triumph of Love,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m. Ends March 23. $28-$41. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

“The Triumph of Love,”

Rene Augesen: Princess Leonide

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Colette Kilroy: Corine

Tom Beckett: Harlequin

Patrick Kerr: Dimas

Joshua Farrell: Agis

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Jeanne Paulsen: Leontine

Patrick O’Connell: Hermocrate

A South Coast Repertory production of a play by Marivaux, adapted by Richard Greenberg from a literal translation by John Glore. Directed by Mark Rucker. Sets Karen TenEyck. Costumes Katherine Beatrice Roth. Lights Tom Ruzika. Original music and sound Michael Roth. Wigs Carol F. Doran. Production manager Michael Mora. Stage manager Scott Harrison.


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