Clowning Around With Love-A Harlequin Romance?

A friend from Connecticut admonishes me for my review of Side Show, which reluctantly gave the musical about Siamese twins the bird. How could I fail to respond to their tragic plight?

It wasn’t easy. In today’s maddening political correctness, to suggest that the Siamese twin sisters in Side Show might be boring is to risk prosecution for stony-hearted discrimination against defenseless minorities. The sisters, Daisy and Violet Hilton, are bland show-biz creations and, if I may say so, they do not suddenly become otherwise because they happen to be conjoined at the hip. To the contrary, they are doubly bland.

Permit me to tell you about the dwarf I knew in England. He didn’t see himself as vertically challenged. Dave was a schoolteacher, a sometime actor, and he was beautiful. He was at ease with himself-as he put it nicely, “living in the land of the tall people, tall as palm trees swaying in the desert.” The one thing he told me that he disliked, as a dwarf, was other dwarves saying hello to him in the street. “I don’t even know them!” he said, and laughed.

In other words, he just wanted to be treated as a human being, faults and all. So the Siamese twins of Side Show should expect no special treatment from us, any more than we are obliged to find clowns funny because they’re clowns. Which brings me to the new Broadway musical Triumph of Love, with, I’m afraid, the near fatal flaw of its unamusing-well, not too amusing-commedia dell’arte clowns.

I hear my Connecticut friend murmur: “Pick on a clown now! Whatever next?” But no greater love for clowns hath man than yours truly! A partnership of masterly clowns called Charlie Karoli & Paul is my enduring first love of the theater. The red-nosed Charlie was funny, and the harlequin Paul sad, at times unbearably sad. I fell under their spell when, in childhood, I saw them at the circus, and begged to see them every year the circus came to town.

This is the extraordinary thing about them: They made us laugh and feel sad simultaneously . So that when Charlie would end up with a custard pie up his nose, Paul, in whiteface and immaculate silver costume, would wail on his saxophone. The more we laughed at Charlie, the more, it seemed, that Paul was crying. Until, in this delicate balance, we never quite knew anymore which was more appropriate-the laughter or the tears.

Brilliant, Charlie Karoli & Paul! That’s the crucial, delicate balance missing from Triumph of Love , which walks the high wire hovering dangerously between farce and sadness in the guise of philosophical debate. This is the first Broadway musical I can recall in which two spinster-philosophers look to the day when Reason shall return to Sparta, but let’s not go into that now. Triumph of Love is another oddity of the new season-a comic fairy tale where love and passion ultimately conquer all in the Age of Reason. Adapted by James Magruder from the play by Pierre Marivaux, audiences were no doubt rolling in the aisles when it was first performed in 1732. But the new musical adaptation tests us, in spite of its charms.

Triumph of Love cannot effortlessly weave its story in and out of pathos unless its comic center holds. Alas, the clowning of Roger Bart as Harlequin and Kevin Chamberlin as the bawdy gardener, Dimas, anticipates more laughter than it receives. Neither performer is a born clown. We do not love them on sight. But they oversell their wares. When, for example, they are joined by the spirited Nancy Opel playing a naughty maid-Ms. Opel is David Ives’ leading comic actress-they digress into a vaudevillian song and dance, “Henchmen Are Forgotten,” which reminds us uncomfortably why vaudeville died in the first place. They are desperate to please, but the charm and the fun do not come naturally.

Mr. Magruder’s translation is partly to blame. “Love emboldens me! Will you fly to my side, forsooth?” His jokes are long in the tooth, forsooth. Mr. Magruder holds degrees in French literature from Cornell University and Yale University and a doctorate from the Yale School of Drama, and he doesn’t know the difference between good corn and bad corn. Sample: “Can the world offer more than the intercourse of two hearts?” Geddit? Intercourse. “Guess it’s time for a Harlequin romance!” And in the sophomore spirit of double-entendres, “It’s been a long time since I used my fertilizer!” “Ménage à Troy” isn’t bad, I guess.

The heady intricacies of Marivaux’s text suggest a high-minded farce. Princess Léonide (Susan Egan) is madly in love with a big handsome lug named Agis (Christopher Sieber), who’s a philosophy student taking lessons from his miserable aunt Hesione (Betty Buckley) and her pompous brother, the super-wise Hermocrates (F. Murray Abraham). Are you with us so far?

The philosophy community lives in an isolated garden with two unfunny clowns. They’re in search of the meaning of meaning in which love has no meaning. I think I’ve got that right. Love and young girls are banned from the unenchanted garden where Reason prevails. Princess Léonide disguises herself as a man, along with her lusty maidservant, Corine, in order to infiltrate the sanctuary and win over the lug. In spite of everything these early logical positivists believe, all three-the two spinsters, Hermocrates and Hesione, as well as the smitten Agis-fall wildly in love with the princess, who’s sometimes a pretty boy and sometimes isn’t. And that will do for now.

Princess Léonide is the first Me Generation heroine in dramatic literature. “It was merely a means to an end,” she sings smugly. She has humiliated the two besotted spinster philosophers in order to get her man. She has made them foolish. How “sweet” is she, really? Love, Marivaux is saying, is as single-minded and coldly logical as the dour rationalist enemy.

A good subject for a Broadway musical? Not here, I’m afraid. Ms. Egan-the original Belle of Beauty and the Beast -is game for anything, and she sings beautifully. But subtext isn’t her strength. She is really Princess Belle and, when not, Peter Pan.

With the performances of Betty Buckley and F. Murray Abraham, the musical at last takes on a touching depth and authenticity in which the charm is earned. The show begins to fly in their expert company. Mr. Abraham, as the bald wise man, appears at first to be trying out for the role of the King of Siam in The King and I (at which he would be excellent). He isn’t a natural singer, but he knows how to sing. He’s restrained, ironic, dignified and full of mischief. Unexpectedly, he might be the most deadpan comedian since Jack Benny. Yet, with his character’s downfall and humiliation, he quietly touches us, which is the most important thing.

Betty Buckley-the original Grizabella of Cats -possesses the unmistakable voice, of course, that can rip through the walls of the theater and stop distant ships at sea. “Love has entered my vocabulary,” she announces-and who wouldn’t be glad! Ms. Buckley, who also possesses a knockabout talent for comedy, expresses in song a sense of loss and longing that invariably touches all hearts.

Her big number, “Serenity,” is the best from composer Jeffrey Stock, in his Broadway debut, and librettist Susan Birkenhead. Ms. Birkenhead is the most accomplished (and underused) lyricist in the American musical today. But Mr. Stock’s score isn’t always her equal. The director, Michael Mayer, hammers far too much home, like cooking a soufflé with building blocks. Triumph of Love is a small musical for Broadway. The cast is only seven strong. It needn’t matter, but there are few occasions when there are more than two people on stage. When they’re the delightful and playful Mr. Abraham and Ms. Buckley, all is well with the world. But in this peculiar musical fairy tale of Truth and Logic, the rest of the cast are so busy having fun, no one else is.