In the first scene of playwright Bill Cain's smug overachiever of a comedy, "Equivocation" at the Victory Gardens Theater, you feel more like you're watching some trendy self-aware sitcom than a play set in 1605. Look, there's that seasoned comic player Marc Grapey zinging sardonic one-liners as if he were playing that cynical producer Max Bialystock, as voiced by David Mamet! There's Mark Montgomery racing through the clever text as if Aaron Sorkin were sitting on his shoulder, screaming "Faster! Flatter! Snarkier!"
For a few minutes, you go along happily enough with this farcical flow. Cain, who first wrote this play for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where they need some theater nerd-friendly laughs amid all their high-art offerings, is positing a gleefully anachronistic world where Shakespeare and his fellow shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain's Men talk like they're in showbiz, circa right now, peppering his dialogue with little "Shakespeare in Love"-like gags that will make Shakespearean experts and theater insiders feel as if their membership in that sophisticated club is being fully appreciated.
The inciting-incident shtick is that an emissary of the young king (Montgomery) wants Shakespeare — here known as Shag, in another gag best appreciated by Oxfordians who've studied the controversy as to whether Shakespeare really wrote the plays attributed to him — to adapt a royal novel about the Gunpowder Plot, wherein some mysterious personages attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Shag, a savvy old hand who well knows the perils of writing on commission, smells trouble as surely as a modern playwright being handed some lousy self-published novel by a rich old board member and being told to make lemonade. But, well, power talks.
If "Equivocation" were a 90-minute romp, preferably with light-touch doppelgangers of the likes of Rupert Everett in the cast, it would be well and good. But Cain ("Stand-Up Tragedy") has loftier thematic ambitions, involving Shakespeare's exploration into the political machinations of the plot and, at times, the very real oppression and persecution of some of those in its way. Yet further, he wants us to believe that this project might somehow help Shag to deal with the death of his son (Shakespeare really did lose a son) and repair his relationship with his daughter, Judith (the very flat Minita Gandhi), who likely was illiterate in real life, but here is conceived as a brooding, oversmart teenager with a cold dad and a flaky mom who, she says, is "mudding the marriage pool for me."
And that's where director Sean Graney's production starts to collapse. Simply put, Graney initially has his actors step so far out into the world of out-and-out farce — belting out their lines non-naturalistically and at breakneck speed, and concocting all manner of physical business — it's impossible to follow along with these characters when the play turns darker and more complex. They are just not credible or vulnerable enough for us to care.
We go from Pythonesque antics to emotionalism to poignancy and back again, and when a script wants to do all of that, the director just has to build a stronger strap upon which game passengers can hang as the careening train goes lurching down the rails. None of the meta-divisions here is clean enough. And consistency is nowhere in the building; one scene actually involves a character, played by the accomplished comic Arturo Soria, getting quite severely beaten, which is really not very funny. One might be able to go to such places if the production were set up as some kind of dramedy, but when you start out watching a cross between "Spamalot" and "Don't Dress for (Your Jacobean) Dinner," you're just not able to give two shakes of a lamb's tail about whether this Shag dude can learn to channel his grieving about his lost son.
"Equivocation" is not bereft of laughs. It has some appeal as a field trip, or literary treasure hunt, for graduate students of the humanities. Nor is it without smarts: Cain quite cleverly works Shakespeare's biography (such as it is) into his yarn, poking fun at everything from the Bard's notorious pandering to the Tudors in "Richard III" to his obsession with killing off his characters — when confronted with that criticism, Shag gets defensive, arguing that war dead should not be included in the count. And there is one genuinely hilarious scene featuring the very funny Bruce A. Young's Richard, stuck playing King Lear half-naked with only some fool for company.
But in this incarnation, at least, "Equivocation" has too little heart. It lives up to its name and goes on and on and on, leaving you as eager for the exits as a fickle freshman being force-fed "Titus Andronicus."
When: Through Oct. 14
Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $20-$50 at 773-871-3000 or victorygardenstheater.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye