Only a sophisticate would bother contemplating the nature of innocence, and it’s hardly surprising that a sophisticate on the order of Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux would be less interested in innocence itself than in the corruption that is its inevitable end. But of history’s sophisticates only Marivaux, that peerless, pitiless 18th-century dissector of young love, could have considered the twinned topics with the perfect blend of cruelty and charity he exhibits in The Dispute.

Imagine: Four teenagers, each one reared in utter Edenic isolation, are loosed into a wider world while a concealed gallery of courtiers watches to see how quickly love will bloom—and be betrayed. This is the brutal test The Dispute’s sophisticate-in-chief—one of those jaded theatrical princelings prone to dabbling in metaphysics—has designed to settle an argument with his beloved, who’s insisted that men are more inclined to inconstancy than women. Not surprisingly, the experiment does less answering than anatomizing: What the prince’s court finds in Marivaux’s disenchanted forest is a kind of tragicomic distillation of the masculine and feminine natures—our worst attributes summed up, stripped of the moderating influence of socialization, and shoved to center stage. Neither man nor woman, in short, comes out on top.

Neil Bartlett’s effortlessly fluid translation couldn’t be mistaken for an invitation to slapstick, but Jeremy Skidmore’s boisterous staging for the Theater Alliance nonetheless paints those unattractive portraits of man- and womankind in broad comic strokes rather than the subtle shadings of marivaudage—the exquisitely framed, piercingly perceptive banter for which the playwright’s name became an equally elegant shorthand. The jokes get underlined and the wordplay gets rushed, yet somehow the production’s unsubtlety never quite becomes off-putting; imagine, if such a thing were possible, a Saturday Night Live sketch that doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Skidmore does add one or two nice touches. He prefaces his staging, for instance, with a wordless movement sequence. (The bit, developed in conjunction with the improv-dance troupe the PlayGround, foreshadows the PlayGround’s longer piece, Buried in the Sky, offered with the play as a double bill.) In just a few expressive minutes at the outset, the ensemble outlines the story to come, with wide-eyed naifs discovering first each other, then the pleasures and perils of “touch,” “embrace,” “shove,” “distraction,” and other interpersonal inevitabilities—just as Kathleen Coons’ Eglé and Andrew Price’s Azor will do after their princely zookeeper introduces the setup and the play proper gets under way.

Once the speaking has begun, those two youths (along with Lindsay Allen’s Adine and Peter Finnegan’s Mesrin, the garden’s second couple) move rapidly and riotously from instant infatuation through a whole host of other human weaknesses: Eglé falls for her own reflection even before Azor falls for her, for instance, so it makes a sardonic kind of sense that she expects everyone she encounters to be similarly smitten. Adine feels likewise (we’ll let Marivaux’s “of course” remain implicit; he was an ironist, not a feminist)—which means the two women are instantly at one another’s throats, and the men, naturally, are all too ready to fall for the newest available distraction. (Turns out our author was an equal-opportunity sexist. Or maybe just a realist.)

The boys even develop a bit of a crush on each other: The playwright’s joke targets the buddyish bonds that keep men from ever really connecting with the women in their lives, but Skidmore has Finnegan and Price queer the moment ever so slightly—just enough, really, to add a suggestion of universal wantonness to the play’s catalog of gender-specific failings. Intriguing, that.

Would that everything about the production were equally so. The sound design (by Finnegan) and set (by Skidmore) are assets—the latter consists primarily of a fanciful copper-lattice tree that with its twisty top-heaviness suggests nothing so much as an enchanted baobab, and it brings with it enough knowledge-of-good-and-evil associations to give pause when the high-spirited Mesrin goes to break off a branch. Linda Norton’s costumes, however, are excessively wretched: The children in the garden look as though they’ve stumbled in from a pajama party, the courtiers as if they’re doing the Maryland Renaissance Festival on the cheap—and poor Jennifer Phillips, whose Hermiane starts (and abruptly ends) the whole business, looks like Tamara the Goth Queen, if Tamara had been adopted in her infancy by Barbarella.

But there’s enough truth in the play to survive an uneven mounting. In the end, every relationship in The Dispute threatens and is threatened by the others; man and woman, Marivaux proposes, are born equivalently if not equally flawed, the one too needy not to be fickle, the other too greedy not to be faithless. It’s a bitter assessment, brilliantly packaged—but it comes sweetened, happily, by a coda suggesting at least the possibility of a better human nature. If such a thing exists, the play’s last moment hints, it’ll need careful nurturing if it’s not to be corrupted. How like Marivaux to end on a note so hopeful—and at the same time so bleak. CP