Like love, deep emotions are things that a play, and a production, have to earn. I don't think this one ever does.

The Game of Love and Chance

McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ, through May 25, (609) 683-8000.

Five years ago, Stephen Wadsworth single-handedly launched the American revival of the 18th-century French playwright Marivaux with his McCarter production of The Triumph of Love.

He, and Marivaux, won me over then. And they won me over once again when Wadsworth returned to McCarter the next year to direct The Double Inconstancy (under the title Changes of Heart) with the same design team (sets by Thomas Lynch and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz). In those two productions, Wadsworth demonstrated that Marivaux was not a precious epigrammatic stylist writing for and about periwigged elites, but rather a dramatist of the soul, a masterful playwright of both high comedy and emotional profundities.

So my expectations were high for Wadsworth's latest venture into Marivaux territory: the 1730 comedy The Game of Love and Chance, which he has translated, adapted and directed, again working at McCarter.

But I have to confess that, until the beginning of the third and last act, I was disappointed.

The Game of Love and Chance has everything going for it. For one thing, it is, like the other productions, breathtakingly lovely to look at and (with music of the period) to listen to. A grove of cypresses and a two-story facade of a country house, with views into rooms from which characters can watch one another, frame a gravel path and a lawn of new-mown grass, with a hazy view of a valley in the distance.

And the play's situation is absolutely delicious. Silvia (Francesca Faridany) is apprehensive about her arranged marriage to a reputedly lovable young man who is coming to visit that day, so she persuades her father (Laurence O'Dwyer) to let her change costumes and identities with her servant Lisette (Margaret Welsh) so that she can observe her fianc at a safe distance. Unbeknownst to her, but known to her father and her brother (Jared Reed), her fianc Dorante (Neil Maffin), with similar apprehensions, has changed costumes and identities with his servant Harlequin (John Michael Higgins).

The audience gasps with delight as the premise falls into place, and with good reason: they know instinctively that Silvia and Dorante will fall in love with one another at first sight, not knowing the other's true identity, and so will Lisette and Harlequin, and that this situation will yield some delectable comedy of deception, innuendoes and mistaken identity.

It also has the potential to yield waves of conflicting emotions (desire, agony, uncertainty, denial and guilt, to name only a few) -- precisely the emotions that Wadsworth had been able to mine so successfully in the other productions.

And yet, when in the second act, Silvia and Dorante finally speak their love to one another, instead of Wadsworth's usual deep (and often ponderously slow) exploration of emotion, we saw instead a flurry of comedic activity and a rush of words. Were the actors simply less capable of conveying emotional depth than their counterparts in Wadsworth's earlier productions? I don't know: Faridany and Maffin seemed to be playing the game in earnest; they were just playing it for laughs.

Nor do the first two acts deal with the play's awkward view of class: the servants, Lisette and Harlequin, are ridiculous when they attempt to play aristocrats, and only they, stupid servants as they are, fail to see the other's vulgarity; meanwhile, the two disguised aristocrats are drawn, without knowing it, to one another's natural aristocratic refinements and superior sentiments. Ugh.

By Act 3, though, all this begins to change. First, in an interpolated speechless moment accompanied by music, Dorante silently contemplates the impossibility of the msalliance, and despairingly realizes that the only relation he can anticipate having with the supposed servant girl would be extramarital, filled with deception and exploitation. Then Silvia, now in on the secret of Dorante's disguise, puts his love to the test, forcing him to throw away his rank and fortune for her sake. Class, now, is not a source of cheap contemptuous humor but a genuine obstacle to human intercourse on the deepest emotional level. And abiding love is now something that has to be earned, with the pain of renunciation and the terrors of blind trust.

Like love, deep emotions are things that a play, and a production, have to earn. But while the play finally begins to earn its profundities in the final act, I don't think the production, after the headlong rush of light comedy, ever does. In the play's final moments, Wadsworth slows down the action, and, as he did in his other two Marivaux productions, undercuts the conventional resolution of the plot with a pantomime sequence in which each character has a moment of contemplation and indecision, to the accompaniment of the setting sun and the music by Rameau. But this time the moments ring false, the emotional causes insufficient for the theatrical effect.

The Game of Love and Chance is arguably less probing than the other Marivaux plays that Wadsworth has adapted and directed. And Harlequin, who so dominated those productions, is given fewer opportunities here to grow, love, learn and suffer. Higgins plays Harlequin for the third time at McCarter, and he nearly saves the show with his usual exuberance and panache (when, disguised as Dorante, he sits on a chair flirting with Lisette-disguised-as-Silvia, his whole body is at a 45-degree angle to the ground). Higgins' Harlequin in this play is a virtuoso of vulgarity, but not, like his other Harlequins, of deep feeling.

The profundities of The Game of Love and Chance simply come too late; and by the time they come Wadsworth appears to be working much too hard to get them.

-- Cary M. Mazer