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Marivaux's 'Love' is less than a triumph

October 16, 2002|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

"The Triumph of Love," Marivaux's 18th century comedy about a scheming princess who invades a hermitage and shatters the celibate notions of its resident ascetics, is an enduring and popular trifle that recently inspired a stage musical, as well as a film starring Mira Sorvino and Ben Kingsley.

Shockingly innovative in his day, Marivaux combined traditional commedia slapstick with the impeccably rational discourse of the Enlightenment in his splendidly subtle and wickedly entertaining plays. The blending of those apparently opposite styles proved jarring to audiences in Marivaux's early career, but Marivaux's genius was soon widely acknowledged and appreciated.

In the play's current production at A Noise Within, translation by James Magruder, director Anne Justine D'Zmura deliberately deepens that stylistic divide, to unfortunate effect. In certain scenes, characters caper inanely. In others, they might as well be playing "Hamlet."

When all is said and done, Marivaux's play is still a comedy, one that requires a light hand and lightning pacing. Despite that old directorial truism about comedy being rooted in truth, it must also be rooted in timing. Here, D'Zmura seems more intent on psychological veracity than fun. Despite the broadly comic turns of a trio of tricky servants, D'Zmura's tack is so unfailingly earnest, her pacing so plodding, that the play's airy rhythms are seriously punctured. In their evident determination not to play for cheap laughs, the actors seldom get any laughs, cheap or otherwise.

Particularly problematic is Abby Craden's performance as Leonide, the artful princess who, disguised as a man, invades the cloister of the philosopher Hermocrate (Mark Bramhall) to win the heart of Agis (Michael Matthys), Hermocrate's student and ward. Agis is the rightful prince of the realm, whom Leonide hopes to woo, wed and restore to his throne. But first, she has to insinuate herself into Hermocrate's household, which she manages by seducing virtually everyone in it, including the supposedly celibate Hermocrate and his spinster sister Leontine (June Claman).

For the conceit to work, Leonide must be a past mistress of the shuck and jive, a cheerful con artist able to cook up a new stratagem with a wink and a wiggle. Although physically striking and self-possessed, Craden displays little of the simmering invention that would make her dialogue more lively.

In the brief and far breezier second act, old pros Bramhall and Claman make the most of their comic opportunities, but by then it is too little, too late. Thomas Buderwitz's set, Alex Jaeger's costumes and James Taylor's lighting all start off in a somber, slate-gray palette, then effectively transform into warmer, more vibrant hues. Norman L. Berman's sprightly original music adds whimsy to the otherwise joyless proceedings.

"The Triumph of Love," A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Plays in repertory through Dec. 5. Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Nov. 3, 2 and 7 p.m.; Nov. 6-8, 8 p.m.; Nov. 15, 8 p.m.; Nov. 16, 2 and 8 p.m.; Dec. 1 at 2 and 7 p.m.; Dec. 5, 8 p.m. $22-$28. (818) 240-0910. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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