The reverse alchemy of ‘Scapin’

If you love theater, American Conservatory Theater’s new production of Moliere’s “Scapin” may make you feel guilty. You want to fully enjoy the work of some exceptionally talented artists, working hard, but it’s not easy.

Laws of both diminishing returns and reverse alchemy come into play with initially charming commedia dell’arte by giants of the genre. Bill Irwin (adaptor, director, star), Jud Williford, Steven Anthony Jones and Geoff Hoyle display great skill in vaudeville, physical comedy, clowning and horseplay.

Elements of gold, however, congeal into something considerably less than a golden experience. By the second act, even with a brilliant turn by René Augesen, tedium sets in; you can’t help feeling guilty for being unable to keep up.

Moliere’s 1671 “Les Fourberies de Scapin” (“Scapin’s Deceits”) is in the second rank of works by the playwright known for “Tartuffe,” “The Misanthrope” and “The Imaginary Invalid.” The figure of Scapin is based on Scapino, the 16th-century commedia dell’arte character, a clever servant, schemer, scoundrel, but also a good guy who solves his masters’ problems.

In “Scapin,” those problems come from the tangled love affairs of Octave (Gregory Wallace) and Hyacinth (Ashley Wickett), Leander (Patrick Lane) and Zerbinette (Augesen), which displease the fathers of the two men, Argante (Jones) and Geronte (Hoyle).

Scapin and Sylvestre (Williford) are the servants who save the situation, along with their own hide — often beaten with relish.

Irvin’s adaptation (with Mark O’Donnell) jettisons most of the text of the original, keeping the basic plot and characters, and adding lengthy and hilarious charades, contemporary references (fear of foreigners is particularly timely), plugs for ACT season subscribers, conversations with the audience, and interplay with musicians Randall Craig and Keith Terry.

Whatever cohesion the Moliere play had is gone with the wind, along with the original tough anti-aristocracy satire from the protégé of the Duke of Orléans.

But lack of substance is not the main problem. Lack of sustained comedy is. Even Irvin’s own rubber face and rag-doll physique become less and less intriguing as the two-hour show goes on.

Erik Flatmo’s set is curious: a pair of 21st-century house facades, lit brightly and flatly, invoking neither anything French or anything in specific.

THEATER REVIEW

Scapin

Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. most Wednesdays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. most Sundays; closes Oct. 17

 Tickets: $10 to $88

Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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