Photo by Dita Marina ObertScoundrels, swindlers, rogues and con men have been stock characters in world drama since the Roman comedies at least. Maybe it's the vicarious thrill we get watching them outwit authority that accounts for their enduring charm. Or maybe we just like dicks. Mark Scrivener's The Worthy Master of the Law, receiving its world premiere at the Chance Theater, recalls this august theatrical tradition, but not always effectively. Written in iambic pentameter and influenced by the colorful characters and broad comedy of the Italian commedia dell'arte, The Worthy Masterfollows the exploits of Vulpes (Alan Hartung), a practiced prevaricator and down-on-his-luck lawyer. Knowing that clothes make the man, Vulpes swindles the merchant Jasper (Robert G. Davis) out of six yards of cloth—takes the cloth on credit, then feigns insanity when the merchant comes to collect. His fortunes improve when, having fooled Jasper, he's asked to represent a shepherd (Nicholas E. Anderson) accused of selling his master's sheep. When the shepherd's master turns out to be Jasper, and the merchant sees the fully functional Vulpes representing his servant in court, comedy, as they say, ensues.
Or should. Unfortunately, The Worthy Master of the Law never masters its subject. In order to work, Vulpes needs to be ridiculously charismatic, a silver-tongued charmer who can talk his way into or out of anything, with the audience firmly in his pocket. Unfortunately, Scrivener's Vulpes isn't cleverly drawn, often coming off as windy rather than slick. His wife, Marguerite (Alex Bueno), is equally ill-conceived, starting out a termagant and quickly becoming a willing accomplice. It doesn't help that director Jocelyn Brown's cast lacks the verbal/physical comedic chops to pull off commedia; the actors rely too much on shtick; some are unforgivably hammy.
The playwright bears much of the blame. This is a play in which form is more important than content, but there are structural problems with the play's mad scenes, which seem tremendously drawn-out without ever really paying off; after all that effort, would it have been too much trouble to have Vulpes show up in court in a new set of clothes? And if the play is intended to satirize slick-talking lawyers and the people who love them, wouldn't it make sense to get into the courtroom a little sooner? For the first 50 minutes of the play, it could just has easily have been The Worthy Master of Aqueducts for all the law figured into it.
The Worthy Master of the Law at the Chance Theater, 5576 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, (714) 777-3033. Sat.-Sun., 5 p.m. Through Sept. 8. $13-$15.