"People are who they are," says one gossip; "People are never who they are," Laudisi answers, rubbing his hands together and giggling with glee. theater

Have It Your Way!

People's Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, through June 29, (610) 644-3500.

With all the uncertainties, mysteries, paradoxes and enigmas at the heart of Luigi Pirandello's 1917 play, Cosi e (se vi pare)!, there is one thing certain about it: it's being played at People's Light & Theatre as an out-and-out comedy.

The play (translated and adapted by Louis Lippa with the felicitous title Have It Your Way!, rather than the more familiar Right You Are (If You Think You Are)!) is a philosophical disquisition disguised as a play wrapped around a tragedy.

It's a theatrically savvy move for Lippa, who also directs, to make sure that the disquisition-disguised-as-a-play comes on like gangbusters; what it does to the tragedy at the play's heart is another story.

Agazzi (Stephen Novelli), a civic official in a provincial Italian town, his family (Tess Malis Kincaid, Rosemary L'Erario), their maid (Elizabeth Webster), and a widening circle of friends (Benjamin Lloyd, Mary Beth Scallen, Ceal Phelan) and local officials (Paul Meshejian, Peter DeLaurier), gossips all, are trying to account for the peculiar family arrangements of a surly new civic employee, Signor Ponza (Tom Teti), who lives with his wife in a fifth-floor walkup in a tenement, houses his mother-in-law Signora Frola (Alda Cortese) in a comfortable apartment in the fashionable part of town, and evidently prevents his wife and her mother from seeing one another.

Here comes the philosophy: the gossips feel that it is desirable, and moreover possible, to get to the truth of the matter. Agazzi's brother-in-law Laudisi (Mark Kincaid) thinks otherwise: truth is unknowable, other people are unknowable, and identity is at best provisional and in all likelihood nonexistent. "People are who they are," says one gossip; "People are never who they are," Laudisi answers, rubbing his hands together and giggling with glee. He then waits and watches, while the Ponza family's tragedy proves his point.

In Lippa's staging, each and every quirk and mannerism, every ounce of pomposity, every dram of peculiarity among the gossips is prominently on display (and expertly portrayed by the actors) as they all vie for attention, compete with one another with their pet theories about the Ponza family, and act out their own little family dramas. And the more the Ponza family's mysteries elude them, the more frantic (and the more characteristic of themselves) they get, until they are all rushing about, fainting on couches and running one another over. Meanwhile Laudisi, an irrepressible comic force of contrariety, is squirming in his chair with contemptuous delight, played by Kincaid as a svelte Oliver Hardy in a gorgeous purple sport coat and blue tie (the play has been moved up in time to 1928, evidently to let James F. Pyne, Jr., and Marla J. Jurglanis decorate the Agazzi apartment in art deco peaches and blues and dress the inhabitants in the latest Milanese fashion).

At the center of this whirlwind of farcical comedy is an earthshaking tragedy -- literally so, since the Ponza family's woes began when an earthquake destroyed their town, killing virtually all their family members, perhaps including Ponza's wife (or perhaps not -- that's part of the irresolvable mystery that so baffles the gossips). If Laudisi is right, if the truth of events is indeterminable and the truth of someone else's identity is unknowable, there is only one truth possible for each individual: the truth of human emotion, the inescapable price we all pay for deep loss.

As Signor Ponza and Signora Frola, Teti and Cortese find the emotional truth of their characters' shared tragedy. And the deep drama of their story is well told, with all its paradoxical twists and turns (including several that border on the explicitly theatrical metaphors that have aptly come to be called "Pirandellian"). After a particular agonizing moment of madness (which we later learn to have been play-acting), Teti has a wonderfully insouciant exit, whistling, with his jacket tossed over his shoulder. And Kathryn Petersen is striking, in her last-minute oracular appearance as Ponza's mysterious wife (one of the most stunning late-play entrances in the history of drama, rivaled only by the Orator in Ionesco's The Chairs, the death-bearing messenger in Shakespeare's Love's Labor's Lost, and several of the more ironic deus ex machinas in Euripides).

The tragedy is there, in Lippa's Have It Your Way!, right where it should be. It just can't compete with all the hubbub.

-- Cary M. Mazer