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The setup is rickety in The Game of Love and Chance—routine 18th-century silliness about masters secretly switching places with servants—but one look at ruddy, rowdy Ian Merrill Peakes and you know everything will be all right. Peakes’ Harlequin arrives late to the theatrical party at the Folger Theatre and instantly becomes the life of it, balloon sleeves bouncing to a rhythm all their own as he semaphores gestures with what he imagines to be aristocratic bravado.
He’s a pretender, of course—a valet who has traded identities with his boss, Dorante, who wants to surreptitiously evaluate Silvia, a noblewoman whose hand he’s been promised in marriage. They’ve arrived at her father’s house unaware that Silvia has hatched the same scheme and that the beauty-mark-peppered creature who greets them with supremely awkward curtsies is actually her maid, Lisette. High jinks ensue, as do low jinks and a few choice jinks in between as the servants put on airs and their social betters desperately try not to. It’s frivolous, diverting, and—when Peakes is sliding down banisters or finding four separate laughs in an offhand bit of wayward finger-pointing—occasionally even hilarious. And yet, and yet….
When a comic warhorse proves as pleasantly light on its feet as The Game of Love and Chance is at the Folger, it feels almost churlish to ask that it not merely scamper but dance. Few theatrical frolics dating from 1730 can even creak their way around a stage these days, after all, and with Peakes’ help, director Richard Clifford has Pierre de Marivaux’s upstairs/downstairs romp breaking into a spirited canter on occasion. Shouldn’t that be enough?
Well, call me a churl, but I wanted more. Not more laughs—the evening has plenty—but more grace, more sting, more that suggests a carefully choreographed gavotte between this social comedy’s social and comic aspects rather than a wholesale turn toward farce. In Love and Chance, Marivaux wasn’t just riffing on commedia dell’arte situations and characters, he was satirizing the class and gender attitudes of his day, mocking the pretensions of country folk who’ve come to the city as well as the expectations of both the pampered Parisians they find there and the lower-born folks who do the pampering. Stephen Wadsworth’s adaptation could make do with many fewer words if he weren’t accounting for all those undercurrents.
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And those societal wrinkles are mostly not coming across at the Folger, though there are hints that Clifford meant to deliver a more nuanced, complicated romp than the one that has actually made it past rehearsals. He opens the evening with some wordless stage business—Silvia’s father sampling honey as a servant pours smoke into a beehive—that calls up all sorts of associations, from conventionally romantic birds-and-bees tropes to the social stratification represented by that drawing of the British beehive. (The setting may be pre-revolutionary France, but the director’s sensibility is rooted on the other side of the Channel.) Still, once the dialogue gets under way, the subtext mostly gets lost.
Partly, this is a matter of casting. Peakes’ crotch-fanning, armpit-sniffing, almost feral Harlequin-as-master is nicely paired with Matthew Montelongo’s winningly conflicted aristocrat-turned-servant, who is visibly mortified at his valet’s behavior but too embarrassed by his own part in their joint deception to challenge Harlequin when others are present. Montelongo makes Dorante’s interior struggle amusingly physical, his eyes shooting daggers as he follows his valet’s orders, his shoulders slumping guiltily when he realizes he’s not being servile enough. And when he falls for Silvia, mistakenly thinking she’s beneath him socially, he wrings some nicely love-struck variations from those poses.
But the women aren’t quite on the same comic page. Chanel’s high-born Silvia is never less than fetching, whether attired in the noble finery to which the character is accustomed or dressed in a borrowed maid’s apron, but if a sense of noblesse oblige informs her sense of humor, you’d never guess. When she schemes, she’s no more troubled by propriety than are Harlequin and Lisette, and her delivery (she nearly always sounds as if she’s reciting stage dialogue rather than conversing) is more arch than sophisticated. As Lisette, Ross has the unenviable task of trying to keep up with Peakes even though the director hasn’t been able to come up with physical business for her that’s nearly as distinctive as, say, the antic little double-kicks Harlequin does before heading up a staircase. Instead, Clifford saddles Ross with an unfunny pillow-dropping bit during her first scene and thereafter allows her to mug so shamelessly she could almost be charged with assault.
As Silvia’s in-the-know relatives who abet the deception of both couples, Timmy Ray James and James O. Dunn are having a little too much fun giggling on the sidelines—their time might be better spent establishing the rigid social inequities that more or less justify their presence in Wadsworth’s adaptation. Dunn, in particular, has some pointedly presumptuous speeches about a nobleman’s right to dally with the domestic help, and if he weren’t delivering them as if he were simply playing a practical joke on his sister, they might play as snarkily caustic and satirical.
But then, subtlety is not a direction in which Clifford has ended up taking the production, whatever his intentions may have been initially. That’s evidenced not just by the broad playing style but also by a design scheme in which scenarist Tony Cisek paints his swirling stagewide staircases the color of pistachio ice cream, while Kate Turner Walker’s costumes are so ferociously patterned that a colleague quipped after one of Lisette’s entrances that she looked as if she’d been offstage shredding upholstery. All of which makes for an evening that becomes wearing after intermission, once it’s become clear that nothing real is being risked and that all the strenuous antics aren’t rooted in interesting ideas or characters. Laughs, this game of love has—and in abundance—but it isn’t taking chances.CP