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LOVERS AT VERSAILLES

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The title of Bernard Farrell's Irish comedy refers to one character's misunderstanding, and truncation, of four words in a famous Frank Sinatra song, as this trite gag gets run into the ground. (Hint: The song has to do with a nocturnal meeting of strangers.) That's the level of inspiration in this mediocre new play, making its U.S. debut following a 2002 Dublin premiere. If Neil Simon set out to create a softened version of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, it would likely resemble this play—sitcom disguised as seriocomedy. Aside from some appalling dialects—now you hear them/now you don't—director Andrew Barnicle has fashioned a capable rendition, though it scarcely seems worth the bother.

The play's scattered plot and annoying flashback structure hamper its capacity to hold our attention. In a middle-class suburban town in Dublin, the death of shop owner Stephen (Joe Medalis) causes catalytic effects in the family. Younger daughter Isobel (Rebecca Dines) and her doltish husband Tony (Richard Ashton) scramble to gain control of the family business. Stephen's controlling wife Clara (Marcia Rodd) finds evidence suggesting that he was possibly unfaithful. And lonely elder daughter Anna (Kelley Hazen) gets a second chance at love. This comes 10 years after Clara's fainting spells threw a monkey wrench into Anna's engagement to a kindly man (Kevin Black), who wanted to whisk her away from her soul-crunching existence. Farrell continually undercuts opportunities for something more compelling and resonant. There's no sense of urgency in Anna's plight, as contrived humor dominates the proceedings: mildly funny punch lines that sound like punch lines, and verbal sparring matches between Tony and Isobel about things that have little discernible relevance to the overall story or themes.

The cast struggles valiantly to rise above Farrell's tepid dramaturgy. Medalis gives the most empathetic and credible portrayal, a beacon of wry humor and sanity in this woebegone household. Hazen ekes out some good moments in her underwritten role, though the less said about her attempt at an Irish brogue, the better. The often impressive Rodd is also surprisingly dialect-challenged, though she manages to milk humor from this stock mother-from-hell role. Dines and Ashton are assigned the broadest comic shtick and dutifully fill the bill. Black does the best he can in a role with little dimension; ditto Carolyn A. Palmer and Rendé Rae Norman in small supporting parts.

Meeting Laguna's typically fine production standards are Dwight Richard Odle's appropriately sterile interior set, Paulie Jenkins' crisp lighting, and Julie Keen's simple but effective costumes. The large opening-night audience seemed to find this piece more amusing than I did. Perhaps big, fat, ethnic-family sitcoms are in vogue.

"Lovers at Versailles," presented by and at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Feb. 22-Mar. 23. $42-49. (949) 497-2787.

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