Research question: In The Dispute, a 1744 comedy by Pierre Marivaux, translated by Neil Bartlett, a prince unleashes a bizarre behavioralist experiment designed to determine whether women or men first committed infidelity.
Materials: Four adolescents, two of either sex, each raised in solitary confinement; a garden.
Method: Release the teenagers into the garden and watch for signs of faithlessness.
Observations: In this National Asian American Theater Company production, attractive actors swarm the all-white jungle-gym set (courtesy Sue Rees), playing innocents in a newly created Eden. Of course, it isn’t long before the serpents of jealousy, desire, and self-interest crash the garden party. The prince (Alfredo Narcisco) and his lady (Jennifer Ikeda) watch as the young people pair off, swear undying devotion, and then hasten toward fickleness and treachery. Jennifer Chang and Olivia Oguma make wonderfully vain objects of affection, and Alexis Camins and Lanny Joon lustily play their suitors. Designer Kirian Langseth-Schmidt offers a delightful riff on ancien régime wear, especially the double-bubble-skirted dress worn by the elegant Ikeda.
Conclusions: Having observed the various amours and betrayals, the prince who has organized this entertainment decides, “It seems neither sex has anything with which to reproach the other; vices, virtues, both have both.” Similarly, there’s little cause to reproach director Jean Randich for her lively staging. She inspires exuberant physicality in the actors (one doubts there was quite so much barking or nuzzling when the play made its Comédie Française debut), and makes playful use of light and sound cues. Yet the production feels somehow unfinished, as though it were itself an experiment rather than a cogent product. This rough-around-the-edges quality may lend some vitality, but this revival skims the play’s more troubling aspects rather than plumbing into the considerable depths of its cruelty, its racialism, and its unsettling analysis of the human condition. Though Marivaux wrote centuries before Skinner and his ilk, that’s no reason not to get under the skin of this provocative work.