Sometimes the sad sack wins the day. During much of Constellation Theatre Company’s delightful “Scapin,” the none-too-bright servant Sylvestre (Bradley Foster Smith) exudes wet-noodle dolefulness. Plodding around with a drooping posture and expression of resigned dejection, his hands nearly hidden in his yellow sleeves, he resembles a silent-movie clown — Buster Keaton on downers.
But — as everyone in this comedy does — Sylvestre succumbs to the schemes of the wily Scapin (the assured Michael Glenn), who in this case is bent on defrauding a rich man and needs someone to impersonate a thug. Sylvestre rushes off to prepare for the role and returns in a false beard, all thunder and swagger, getting so carried away that he starts tossing off lines from famous movies, like “You talkin’ to me?” from “Taxi Driver.” Needless to say, the intimidated Argante (Carlos Saldana) ponies up the cash.
The sequence is one of many funny moments in this “Scapin,” which gives ebullient slapstick life to Bill Irwin and Mark O’Donnell’s adaptation of Molière’s 17th-century play. Kathryn Chase Bryer directs the production, which features exuberant commedia dell’arte- and vaudeville-influenced costumes by Kendra Rai. Almost as eye-catching is A.J. Guban’s set, whose curvy pastel houses, onstage fountain and hillside-town backdrop suggest Monte Carlo filtered through the lens of Dr. Seuss.
This environment is stomping grounds to two pairs of ostensibly star-crossed lovers. Argante’s son Octave (Matthew McGee) has secretly married Hyacinth (Megan Dominy). Leander (Manu Kumasi), son to Geronte (Ashley Ivey), has fallen for a gypsy named Zerbinette (Nora Achrati). Since both fathers have other matrimonial plans for their sons, the young men turn to Scapin, who resolves to help them, while in the process wreaking a little revenge on Geronte, his unappreciative master.
The farcical proceedings that ensue — scams, disguises, a walloping session featuring a large sack — have a buoyantly self-aware and contemporary quality, thanks in part to the modern language and in-jokes of Irwin and O’Donnell, whose revamp of Molière’s script was originally produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1995. In this “Scapin,” when dialogue elucidates backstory, a banner labeled “EXPOSITION” unfolds from the flies. Scapin makes wisecracks about subscribers (Constellation has them); and, when he wheedles Sylvestre, he asks, “Do you have a theatre arts background? . . . Come on, come on.” “Well, I did a couple of things back in servitude school,” Sylvestre replies.
Adding to the meta-theatre here is the improvisatory music supplied by Travis Charles Ploeger, who sits at an onstage piano in a bowler hat, sometimes sounding like the accompanist to a silent movie, at other times launching into boogie-woogie or theme tunes from films like “Chariots of Fire” and “Titanic.” (Ploeger is creator/director/accompanist for Washington Improv Theater’s “iMusical.”)
The musical improvisation is all the more apt because the subversive Scapin (a character Molière borrowed from commedia) is a master improviser, always hitting on the words and approaches that serve to outwit. Glenn’s relaxed, genial take on the character highlights Scapin’s confidence, while nicely complementing the more idiosyncratic characterizations, including McGee’s flaky Octave; Ivey’s doddering, querulous Geronte; and Saldana’s hilariously blustering Argante.
A climactic chase sequence goes on far too long, but other gags and bits of business land gracefully. A compliment must go to the onstage fountain, whose variable manner of gushing delivers some very funny moments of innuendo. The fountain obviously took in some theater classes during its own stint at servitude school.
Adapted from Molière by Bill Irwin and Mark O’Donnell. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer; composer, Travis Charles Ploeger; lighting design, A.J. Guban; properties, Samina Vieth; fight and movement choreographer, Matthew R. Wilson; dance and movement choreographer, Kelly King. About two hours. Ticket prices: $25-$45. Through Feb. 16 at Source Theatre at 1835 14th St. NW. Call 202-204-7741 or visit www.constellationtheatre.org.