Timothy Douglas, the new artistic director of Chicago's Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, is a measured director known for his careful work with actors. And, indeed, the earnest performers in Douglas' studied new production of "Changes of Heart," the much-admired Stephen Wadsworth adaptation of the 1723 Pierre de Marivaux farce, previously known in English as "The Double Inconstancy," listen so intently, seriously and unhurriedly to each other, there are moments when, from the outside, it feels as if you are watching dreamlike interactions by the scarily intense members of some all-embracing cult.
That signature worked to intriguing dramatic effect with Douglas' interesting debut production of Eugene O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra" earlier this fall, not least because it's a valid take on the messed-up Mannons. But when applied to farce — and, although great wisdom is proffered on matters of life, love and constancy, Marivaux was, at the end of the day, a farceur — it tends to suck all of the life and spontaneity out of the proceedings.
So it goes here during what unravels as a very long and rather confounding night. Predictability is invariably fatal to comedy, and this show, its careful preparation notwithstanding, gets trapped in a series of repetitive patterns.
Working in the former Body Politic space at the Greenhouse — essentially a black box — Douglas builds in a slew of spatial rules and choking strictures. Most entrances involve an actor walking down a long piece of carpet past an imaginary wall and through a carefully delineated door. After a few of those plods, you're ready to advocate for walking through walls, if only it will speed up the comedic action. That's just one example in a plethora of slow-motion stage business that, though rooted in craft, proceeds at such an inuring and weirdly melancholic pace, it is like taking a sedative.
Even though Marivaux's rich roundelay (it's like a kinder, gentler "Les Liaisons Dangereuses") is centered on a pair of lovers — the playful Harlequin and his country gal Silvia — who try to hold it together despite the aggressive romantic intrusions of a posh, slumming Prince and a savvy, worldly courtier named Flaminia — sexuality is almost entirely absent from this production. Ditto, spontaneity. Further ditto, fun.
Douglas says the show is set in 1960s Chicago, which accounts for the Dusty Springfield-like soundtrack played on the record player and Lena Sands' colorful, Carnaby Street-inspired wardrobe (the costumes are gorgeous). Fair enough. But if one is to make such a jarringly specific move in time and place, some workable explanation might be proffered for all the talk of court and courtiers in the script. No clear metaphor has been found for the play's interest in how love can leap over (or crash into) the barriers of class. You have the sense that Douglas wants to say something about race, cash and inequality in the Chicago of this era, but he does not go far enough for it to register. And if you're going to stick Marivaux's happily Italianate Harlequin in the Chicago of Daley the First, you might as well go the whole hog.
Douglas has some very skilled actors, including Alana Arenas, who plays Sylvia with her typical consummate honesty, but who does not seem secure with the overall landscape. Young actor Nicolas Gamboa tries to let go with Harlequin, and he is promising, but these antics need a more skilled physical comedian. At Monday's opening, they were not, frankly, particularly funny to watch. Meanwhile, the handsome Steve Wojtas, who plays the Prince, is so serious and severe, it's hard to imagine him even wanting a good time with any girl, whatever her bona fides or lack thereof. Linda Gillum, who at least brings a droll sensibility, probably comes closest in the projection of a viable comic spirit. But the pervasive stiffness suffocates.
There are a few bursts of life. A few. And this is a formidably accomplished adaptation of one of the great French playwrights. But as a holiday entertainment, this "Changes of Heart" is quite the slog and thus quite the disappointment, despite the skills of these artists and the many beauties within the eloquent yet unstuffy Wadsworth prose. The show urgently needs an injection of pace and vibrancy, a sexual charge, the inclusion of the audience in the various affairs du coeur, and a clear sense of the rules of the perplexing world we share.
When: Through Jan. 8
Where: The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Tickets: $35-$50 at 773-404-7336 or remybumppo.org