King Leer: Gustave makes Leontine, at least, howl.
King Leer: Gustave makes Leontine, at least, howl.

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They say the perfect farce is a well-oiled machine, but they, whoever they are, aren’t telling you the whole story. Farce demands precision, yes, and timing and structure and intricacy. But ultimately it also demands heart: If you don’t believe that the characters are real, that their shenanigans erupt like bursts of steam out of simmering human passions, that the emotional stakes are sky-high enough to justify every ridiculous gambit, every desperate attempt at bluffing and balcony-escaping and closet-ducking—well, then farce is just an exercise in engineering. And who the hell laughs at engineering?

That’s why the Olney Theatre Center’s 13 Rue de l’Amour, in a bright, busy clockwork of a production by John Going, ultimately proves something of a disappointment. It’s stylish as can be, but the giddy upper-crusty goofballs who get themselves snarled in its entangled plot might as well be theme-park automatons. After about 15 minutes of their Plasticine mugging, it’s hard to care which philanderer gets caught with whose wife, even if his pants are down at the time.

It’s no easy target Going’s trying to hit, mind you: 13 Rue isn’t just farce, it’s French farce, and vintage French farce, too. It’s by Georges Feydeau, the form’s 19th-century godfather, and his strengths were topicality and complicated incident; the characters are forever getting themselves into rooms with the very people they’re desperately trying to avoid, which is funny in pretty much any era, but back in the day, Feydeau’s jokes apparently tended toward the au courant—which is probably what leaves them feeling so bland here and now.

The language? I’m told it’s a kind of airy persiflage in the original French. In the rather hectic translation Olney is using (a dated affair by Mawby Green and Ed Feilbert), it’s more noisy than funny. Charm and style are what it requires; what Going’s production applies is a seemingly endless parade of underlines and elbows.

The oversell starts with James Wolk’s deliberately fanciful set, an exuberant eruption in scarlet and rose and pink that looks for all the world as if someone had asked Gaudí to design a bonbon box. Curvilinear doorways stand ready for slamming; heavy moldings droop lumpily atop draperies that look to have been made out of Carmen’s best Sunday-go-to-the-bullfights dress. It’s a consciously artificial frame meant to point up the absurdity of the situations Feydeau gets his characters into—which isn’t the worst idea, as far as it goes.

Going goes much further, though, coaching his performers toward characterizations every bit as stiffly artificial as the set. When the lights come up, Jeffries Thaiss’ Gustave Moricet (the insouciant seducer) and Ashley West’s Leontine (the married but only minimally reluctant seducee) sit assembling bullets for her husband’s upcoming hunting trip, busily packing powder and shot into shell casings—and don’t think the two of them don’t pivot expectantly toward the audience every time oblivious Leontine encourages lusty Gustave to “Ram it.” It’s pretty deadly, but you hope it’ll get funnier as you get to know the characters and watch them trip inevitably toward trouble.

Alas: They do trip ­themselves—Moricet into bed, accidentally, with Leontine’s amorous nephew Jean-Pierre (Nick DePinto), Leontine over a chaise (while under a blanket) in Moricet’s bachelor apartment, and Leontine’s husband Duchotel (Lawrence Redmond) into a pair of trousers that isn’t his, which pretty much forces him to confess the affair he’s been having while he’s supposed to have been off hunting in the country—but you certainly don’t get to know the characters. There’s no genuine spark between the would-be lovers, no actual sense of camaraderie between supposed best friends Moricet and Duchotel, and certainly none of the requisite coquettishness behind the eyes of West’s Leontine—a woman supposedly at once silly enough to believe most of what she’s told and yet savvy enough to plot an endgame once she’s caught her husband in a whopper.

Instead, Going’s cast plays them all for fools: Paris, in the universe of this alleged comedy, is less city than circus and its inhabitants all clowns. The metaphor becomes nearly literal in the cartoon makeup, all bright-pink cheeks and quarter-sized beauty marks, and in Liz Covey’s louder-than-Bozo costumes. The latter reach their vulgar apex when Halo Wines’ glacially unfunny Madame Spritzer makes her entrance, cooing Teutonically about love and preparing Moricet’s boudoir for the impending tryst: Covey has upholstered Wines in a bubblegum wedding cake of a dress that leaves poor Madame Spritzer looking like she’s wandered in from her day job playing Mother Ginger in some ’70s Nutcracker. She’s bewailing her exile from her German schloss—something about an affair with a lion-tamer—but you’re missing half of it, because you’re waiting for the kids to come scampering out from under her skirt.