If your only association with the late Charles Ludlam is Center Stage's 1991 production of his wild and crazy "Mystery of Irma Vep," then the Spotlighters' presentation of his earlier work, "Reverse Psychology," will seem rather tame.
But while "Reverse Psychology" doesn't indulge in such "Irma Vep" antics as casting actors in multiple roles of both genders, it does involve a certain amount of role playing, as its title might suggest.
Director Miriam Bazensky's four-member cast has fun with this, but at least on opening night, the cast seemed to be holding back a bit. Though this reviewer is a fan of understatement, Ludlam's plays demand the opposite. As he wrote in the manifesto for his Ridiculous Theater Company: "Treat the material in a madly farcical manner without losing the seriousness of the theme."
The material in "Reverse Psychology" concerns husband-and-wife psychiatrists who have affairs with each other's patients -- who also happen to be a married couple. What's more shocking? The adultery or the breach of professional ethics? Although the play asks these questions, it boils down to a simple love story. "Reverse Psychology" reverses the philosophy that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
The broadest performance -- and in this context the most successful -- is that of Donald Joseph Koch as Dr. Leonard Silver, a character who doesn't have to hop on his own examining couch to prove he's loonier than his patients. Koch's rapid mood shifts are like speed-reading a psychiatry text.
As his wife, Bethany Brown is playing a snob, and though at times she seems to be trying too hard, that fits the character. The other couple is portrayed by Christine La Gana, who in her best moments has the tacky, high-voiced mannerisms of Mercedes Ruehl, and as her husband, Paul Craley, a struggling artist whose struggles never seem dire enough. Farce is funniest when played as a matter of life or death, and Craley, though comical in the more physical scenes, is a bit complacent about his vocation.
"Reverse Psychology" would probably come across as more romantic comedy than rollicking camp no matter who performed it. And while that might seem a bit unusual for the outrageous Ludlam, the show does display certain unmistakable Ludlam trademarks.
There are corny puns; my favorite was Koch's line: "There's no such thing as a sanity clause." And there are a smattering of literary references, the most obvious being the use of a love potion similar to that in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Well, similar but different. Shakespeare's potion made you fall in love with the first thing you saw; Ludlam's makes you fall for the person to whom you are least attracted.
Similar but different was one of Ludlam's best theatrical tricks. His manifesto also says: "Some things which seem to be opposites are actually different degrees of the same thing." Who's sane and who's crazy? Not a new question, but still a tough one to answer.
Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through (( March 28.
Tickets: $8 and $9.
Call: (410) 752-1225.