The rap against Pierre Carlet de Chamberlain de Marivaux (1688-1763) is distilled in the French word he left behind as his unintended memorial: marivaudage. The term means mannered or precious language, surface wordplay for its own witty or sentimental sake.

The expression's obvious utility in France, down to the present day, periodically has eclipsed the rather more humane and serious man who inspired it. Washington audiences this week will have an exceptional chance to judge the merits of that legacy for themselves--to see through Marivaux's most celebrated and complex work whether he was, as accused, all style and no substance.

"The Game of Love and Chance," first performed in Paris in 1730, opens a three-day run Tuesday at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, following more than 100 performances in France and nearly a week's passage through London. Since the play is surtitled for this tour, the action and even the nuances of dialogue are not difficult to follow--indeed, the simultaneous English translation can add new meanings to what is being said in French onstage.

Like many distinguished directors before him, Jean-Pierre Vincent--once the head of the Comedie Francaise--evidently has no qualms about the play's accessibility or universality of message, either.

"Love has no history," he said the other day. "We've made no progress for centuries. And 2 1/2 centuries ago they were able to examine it with greater precision than we can today." Working-class North African and African immigrant youths who saw his troupe's production as it toured the country for the past year got it, Vincent said, and so will Americans (in Washington and then Boston) and, later, Russians as the tour continues.

Vincent, an amiable man of 55, is among those who want to rescue Marivaux from marivaudage--by tackling what he regards as the most difficult, as well as the most important, play of the three dozen Marivaux wrote.

Yes, he says, language is important--"it manipulates and it deceives"--but there is much more going on with Marivaux. "He had a remarkable generosity of spirit toward humanity, but he could be cruel about the comportment of humans," said Vincent.

British writer Michael Sadler, who did the surtitles for this production, chooses to define Marivaux against the more popular Moliere: Moliere writes about "eternal types"--misers, misanthropes, hypochondriacs--while Marivaux writes about uncertainty and inconstancy. "Love in Moliere is permanent and innocent. In Marivaux it can be fickle, ephemeral, dangerous," Sadler observes in a note on the play.

It's not the Marquis de Sade or "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," but there is in "The Game of Love and Chance" what Sadler calls "the beginning of the theater of cruelty." Its glimpses of darkness, its belief in redemption and its emotional texture, in any case, help to peel away the label of marivaudage.

The plot of this play is convoluted but calls for no greater suspension of disbelief than any other farfetched Enlightenment caper.

As the lights come up, Silvia, a young woman of vaguely noble birth, is bewailing her fate: Her widowed father has found her a potential husband, a suitably well-bred young man named Dorante whom she has never met. Silvia's maid, Lisette, is astonished. A husband is a husband, she says. But Silvia has a better idea.

A child of the Enlightenment no less than Marivaux, Silvia proposes a scientific experiment to determine whether Dorante is the right man for her. She will switch places with Lisette and observe Dorante, who is expected imminently to claim his prize, from behind her disguise.

One reason Marivaux has been dusted off for contemporary audiences is his empathy for women. Silvia, the dominant character of the piece, is a remarkable figure for any epoch: not imprisoned by her class or sex, capable of tenderness and cruelty both, more convincing in her tenacity than in her vulnerability.

If Silvia has a free and strong spirit, she comes by it honestly. When she floats the idea of trading identities to her father, Orgon, he readily agrees. He says he wouldn't want her to marry anyone against her wishes.

Orgon is a bit of a scientific voyeur himself, and he knows something his daughter doesn't. Dorante's father has written to say that Dorante has lit upon the same weird scheme and will be arriving disguised as his manservant, Arlequin, and vice versa. This, Orgon says to his son Mario, should be fun.

Well, it is. Act 1 sets up the "play" within the play, begins the jolly hoisting of the young people by their own petards. Act 2 thrums with the multiple rings of role-playing, class-hopping and double meaning as the characters try to fathom their predicaments.

Silvia and Dorante, obviously smitten with each other, ponder the unintended consequences of their plotting and the awful implications of having fallen for a social inferior--or, alternatively, of marrying an approved candidate who seems cloddish at best. The real servants, Lisette and Arlequin, prancing about in their noble guises, also tumble for each other, believing they have successfully transcended their station and seduced their social betters.

Just to thicken the plot, Mario, Silvia's devilish brother, tells Dorante that he is in love with "Lisette," too, and will not stand idly by while a visiting servant makes a move on her. This adds to Dorante's existential anguish.

With such dizzying counterfeit to keep track of, one could easily be in any number of Elizabethan comedies. Vincent calls Marivaux the French dramatist closest to Shakespeare. For both, disguise and deception are the the ultimate keys to truth and recognition--and, of course, to laughter. Marivaux, like the Bard, likes deploying the cast to comment obliquely on the play itself (e.g., "What kind of ending is this?").

At the end of Act II, the lovesick and very confused Dorante confesses to Silvia that he is, in fact, Dorante. This should be her cue to say, "Glory be, our troubles are over." Some contemporary critics of the play suggested in their reviews that that is where and how the play should have ended. But there is a third act.

Silvia doesn't say anything; she keeps her Lisette mask. "I want a struggle between love and reason," she tells her brother, to be played out for her benefit. "I have no interest in a heart I have not conditioned myself." Such, remarks Mario, is the "insatiable vanity" of a woman. So she puts Dorante's love to the test, stripping him down emotionally and trying to bend him to her will. Will he forsake his standing in the world and marry the poor servant girl, slop bucket and all?

Marivaux's humanity--he was said to be a very nice guy--and his lack of cynicism may bog down his comedy, but they introduce genuine pathos. The laughter inspired by Marivaux, his appreciators point out, is not the laughter of ridicule but something with more dimensions--appreciation, self-awareness, relief. And staging a play for a foreign audience gives laughter still another dimension.

Vincent said he noticed, when his production moved to London 10 days ago, different waves of laughter--first presumably from French speakers, followed by the surtitle-readers. The surtitles take occasional idiomatic liberties with the text to drive home points that the original cannot--and to draw laughs the French version doesn't. From Anglo-Saxons, Vincent said, particularly loud laughs.

For such an audience, laughter serves still another function: "It's a way of telling actors you understand them, even when it isn't 'funny,' " Vincent said. "You can't laugh if you don't understand."

CAPTION: The Theatre des Amandiers production of Marivaux's "The Game of Love and Chance" opens Tuesday for a short run at the Kennedy Center.