Why Do We Laugh?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Sometimes the most interesting thing about doing a play from the past is how it helps us reexamine our present.

Take the latest co-production from the evidEnce Room and the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. It’s an adaptation of a Marivaux play from the eighteenth century, The False Servant.

At its core, The False Servant is a Commedia-inspired, biting romantic comedy with a cross-dresser as a catalyst.

As the play begins, Lelio has already entered into a contract to marry a wealthy Countess and, to boot, he's also borrowed a sizable sum from her. The gist of the contract is -- if the two marry, all is forgiven. If they don't, and he breaks it off, he's got to pony up for both the loan and a penalty. The complication? Lelio has heard rumor of a woman even wealthier than the Countess. Why marry for a little when you can marry for a lot? But, wouldn't you know it, this wealthy female just happens to be masquerading as the handsome new male in the court. She's playing a he to discover Lelio's true heart. Throw in a couple of drunk, greedy servants and you get the idea.

Now if this all sounds terribly familiar, that's in part because Marivaux, the 18th century French playwright, was borrowing from the rich history of the Commedia dell'Arte. You know Commedia, even if you've never heard of it: stock characters struggling to either unite or deter the lovers while hijinks erupt along the way. It's basically the sitcom model.

Now, typically we think of classical plays still having value if they speak to our time, illuminate our present. Watching The False Servant, I couldn't help but think of the past.

This production marks two decades for the evidEnce Room, an impressive marker for any nonprofit. It's fitting that the mechanics of commedia rely so much on repetition. The joy of good Commedia is seeing familiar actors tackle the same challenge again and again. It's like watching a rerun: it’s funny now but it’s also funny because you’ve seen it so many times before. History collapses into the present moment. For fans of the evidEnce Room and director Bart DeLorenzo, The False Servant is like the next chapter of a long serialized story.

The more exciting question that the play hints at but never really tackles is: will these cross-dressing comedies play the same in a world of marriage equality and transgender Marines?

It presses us to wonder whether the comedy's source is the constricted gender roles or simply the deceit. Do we laugh because we're uncomfortable with homosexuality, or do we laugh simply because we know something the characters onstage don't?

At its best, playwright Martin Crimp's adaptation teases us with a self-aware meta-theatricality of characters oddly aware of being stuck in roles from a different time. It's exciting: as if we're going to engage both form, story, and gender. But sadly, both the adaptation and the production never quite gel.

What we're left with is just a hint of our future . . . and maybe that's enough.

The False Servant plays at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in West LA through September 6.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Run time: 95 minutes with no intermission.

Photo: Chastity Dotson and Dorie Barton in The False Servant (Diego Barajas)