The show: "La Dispute" at Hartford Stage
What makes it special?: Kickoff show of the theater's 50th anniversary and the play will alternate with "Macbeth" through early November.
First impressions: An amuse bouche of a production, the mid-18th century play by French playwright Marivaux comes across slight, despite the philosophical questions it asks.
What's it about?: Before cable, French aristocrats had to entertain themselves by creating their own kind of reality TV. Here an imperious Prince undertakes an elaborate social experiment to understand the origins of love and answer the question: "Who was unfaithful first: man or woman?"
He explains nearly 20 years ago the court took four orphan babies — two boys and two girls —- and raised them in social isolation. Now they will be let loose on love as they arrive one by one in a high-walled countryside complex.
But they are not alone. The Prince (Grant Goodman), his mistress Hermianne (Kate MacCluggage) and other aristocrats secretly look on from above. The libidinous youths act, react and interact as the highborn nibble snacks, sip champagne and await to see how this "Big Brother" series ends.
And how does it?: Spoiler alert —- predictably.
Sounds kind of creepy: It is and that's Marivaux's point in this adaptation by Elizabeth Williamson and Darko Tresnjak who also staged the production. The audience becomes voyeurs, too, as the youths discover love, lust and betrayal in this nature-versus-nurture experiment.
How does it unfold?: Old servant Carise (Kate Forbes) first brings young Egle (Kaliswa Brewster) to this seemingly secluded spot where the girl quickly falls in love with —- herself, after seeing her reflection in a splendidly designed pond. (Jedediah Ike creates a set that is elegant, pristine and laboratory spare with just a dash of French filigree.)
When the servant makes an excuse to leave, handsome Azor (Jeffrey Omura) arrives and the couple are immediately smitten with each other. The servant then returns and tells them that for their love to stay strong they must also learn to live apart so Azor reluctantly leaves.
Then lovely Adine (Mahira Kakkar) comes on the scene and suddenly there's a potential rival in Egle's paradise. When another lad Mesrin (Philippe Bowgen) arrives the mathematical possibilities of romance increase until it becomes clear that ultimately the heart wants what it wants. Woody Allen was right after all.
Sounds more like a French farce: Though there are some amusing bits, energetic moves and occasions of charm by the young quartet, the high concept quickly becomes tiresome. At least the kids are all right. The older nobles are played with the irritating stiffness of a harpsichord (which indeed begins the play).
Director Tresnjak's usual fine taste works against the production's needs here with actors playing one-note symbols in lovely outfits (Joshua Pearson gets major points here, especially for the knockout, killer-corseted gown worn by Hermianne.)
Some eccentric, individual or wildly inventive comic spark —- or some deeper and darker elements —- are needed for the production to have a life of its own and to break free of declarative speeches, a heavy-handed theme and love-me-I'm-a-classic feel. A somber end puts an intriguing spin on what was just witnessed but this chilling kick comes too late.
Who will like it?: Francophiles. Cake decorators. Those who like brevity in productions.
Who won't?: Those looking for something less rarified.
For the kids?: Some teens may be entertained by the high spirits of discovering first (and second) love. But most will prefer reality TV.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: No triumph of love.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: Perhaps the production will gain some retroactive resonance in repertory with "Macbeth."
The basics: The show runs in repertory with "Macbeth" at the theater on 50 Church St., Hartford, through Nov. 6. (Check anlternating schedule.) Information: 860-527-5151 and http://www.hartfordstage.org.
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