Missing the Joke

Rich boys Octave and Leander are in love with penniless girls. To avoid the loveless marriages arranged by their fathers, the two enlist their rascally servant—the joyful anarchist Scapin. He succeeds in making a disastrous mess of things, which, in the tradition of commedia dell'arte, is exactly what everyone needs to achieve their happy endings.

Bill Irwin and Mark O'Donnell's witty adaptation of Moliere's The Treacheries of Scapin hews closely to its source, smoothing out the few awkwardly plotted moments while maintaining the original's hilarity. Sadly, much of that wicked humor gets lost in this frenetic Cal State Fullerton production. Director Todd Kulczyk's whip-crack blender-blur of bodies has his cast all playing at the same fevered pitch. Everyone talks too fast, there are zero acting levels, characterization disappears, humorous—and very important—exposition is completely lost, and, fatal to a comedy, the jokes don't land.

That didn't prevent the friendly opening-night audience from eating up every sloppy pratfall and pop-culture clich. But when the audience fell silent, the actors started pushing, creating a forced first act that wasn't half as funny as the cast thought it was.

Micah Dahlberg's Scapin keeps things rolling, but he throws away too many of his punch lines and is too desperate for our love, shortchanging the crueler—and funnier—side of his character. Not so with Darcy Blakesley's callous Zerbinette and Justin L. Waggle's raging Argante, who stand out in a cast whose performances are otherwise so similar in tone—i.e., overblown camp—that they're indistinguishable.

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If you're not too exhausted by intermission, stick around because, surprisingly, it gets better. Perhaps the cast exhausted itself or came to the realization that louder and faster doesn't mean funnier. Whatever: they eased into things, slowed down and inhabited the characters. The jokes started working, and I found myself laughing like crazy after barely laughing at all in the first act. If the director had trusted the audience and the material, he wouldn't have been rushing to the next sight gag, and the real laughter would have come a lot earlier.

Scapin at Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 278-3371. Fri.-Sat. and Nov. 29-30, 8 p.m.; Sun. and Dec. 2, 5 p.m.; Dec. 1, 6 & 9 p.m. $10.

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