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at the Park La Brea Theatre

If you think Shakespeare's a bit thorny to master, beware of playwright William Congreve, aristocratic scribe during 17th-century London, who gives us a comedy of manners with a throng of high-society oddballs, fops galore, roguish rakes, dalliances d'amour, trysts, deceptions, identity swaps, social and financial dickering, and promises of the good life. It's quite an undertaking trying to keep up with all the characters and interactions, but after a while we get an overall feel for what's going on, and then it's fairly delightful: Millamant (Jai Khalsa), who is in love with Mirabell (Scott Roberts), can't marry him, or collect her dowry, until her obstinate aunt, Lady Wishfort (Elizabeth Huffman), gives her blessings.

Although the language is lilting, with an almost musical meter, and the dialogue is wonderfully written, Congreve leaves many of his audience members behind. It's almost as if his work should first be read and then viewed in performance. Critics of his day hated this play, and Congreve, then in his early 30s, apologized and put down his quill forever.

Stuart W. Howard's meticulous direction of this Restoration classic allows the fourth wall to disappear whenever Congreve adds text for further elucidation or when an aside is necessary. Howard's set design is simple, clean, and well-balanced between stage left and stage right. The players manage to carry themselves with artistic authority, staking their claim in this production and making their presence known. They work as an ensemble and are uncommonly good, including a standout turn by Huffman, who garners hearty laughs—and who also takes another bow for notable costume design. Nancy Jeris completes the fine design team with her fastidiously coifed wigs.

Presented by International Classical Acting Project Theatre Company at the Park La Brea Theatre, Activities Center, 475 S. Curson Ave., L.A. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. (Dark Nov. 18 & 23-26 and Dec. 1 & 16.) Nov. 3-Dec. 17. (323) 549-5458.

Reviewed by Dave DePino

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