Commedia dell'arte and vaudeville have at least two things in common: baggy pants and Bill Irwin. All make for a natural fit in the celebrated clown's entirely unconventional adaptation of Moliere's "Scapin."

Commedia dell’arte and vaudeville have at least two things in common: baggy pants and Bill Irwin. All make for a natural fit in the celebrated clown’s entirely unconventional adaptation of Moliere’s “Scapin.” At once enjoying and mocking the conventions of the classic French comedy, Irwin’s fresh take is broad enough to include a reference to Bullwinkle the Moose and savvy enough to respect the wit of Moliere’s genius. Not all of “Scapin” works – some extended bits seem flat, several performances aren’t on par with the best – but one would be hard-pressed to name another star who could put such an effortless, freewheeling spin on this 1671 farce.

“Effortless,” of course, rules out Robin Williams, “freewheeling” just about everyone else. As co-adapter (with Mark O’Donnell) and director, Irwin (last seen in New York in the two-man “Fool Moon” with fellow clown David Shiner) employs any number of vaudeville tricks in bringing to life one of the theater’s greatest tricksters. Who else would have the wily, conniving servant Scapin appear, at one point, disguised as a suburban matron perched in a box seat?

Adopting the tone of a cartoon – a very smart cartoon, at that – the machinations of “Scapin” are played out on a lovely black-and-white set designed by Douglas Stein as a pen-and-ink illustration of a 17th-century village.

Dressed in Victoria Petrovich’s costumes – a canny blend of period dress and born-in-a-trunk vaudeville garb – the cast careens through the farce with a precision that suggests the production isn’t as improvisational as it appears.

As the title character, Irwin gives his trademark rubber-limbed style a real workout, turning the scheming servant into a boogie-dancing, double-talking (and double-taking) con man. His partner in comedy, a newcomer to New York named Christopher Evan Welch, matches him step for step as Scapin’s somewhat dimmer buddy.

The two servants become involved in a tangle of plotlines concerning their rich, greedy masters and the star-crossed wedding plans of the masters’ sons. False identities, moneymaking schemes, foolish young lovers and various comeuppances get their due stage time, with Irwin’s mischievous Scapin pulling the strings.

Some of the production’s gambits work better than others. Irwin’s asides to the audience (“I’m a little lost, and I think that could go for some of the subscribers,” he says during one exposition-laden segment) lend a nice, breezy air to the show, but a chase scene (doors would be slammed if the set had doors) near the end isn’t as wild or funny as it should be. The production gets its biggest lifts when Irwin and Welch pair off, dancing or playing charades with expert comic timing.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag, with Count Stovall and Gerry Vichi turning in fine vaudeville performances as the two greedy masters, and Jonathan Wade suitably handsome and doltish as one of the sons. Others in the ensemble struggle to keep up with the inspired silliness of the leads.

An onstage keyboard player (composer Bruce Hurlbut) adds a silent-movie score and sound effects, and he’s nicely attired in a red, very-long-tailed tux that looks like a Dr. Seuss drawing. Come to think of it, Irwin himself might want to consider adapting “The Cat in the Hat” for his next stage project. He clearly has a knack for classic con artists.

Scapin

Roundabout's Laura Pels Theater, N.Y.; 399 seats; $50.

Production

A Roundabout Theater Company presentation of the play in two acts by Moliere, adapted by Bill Irwin and Mark O'Donnell. Directed by Irwin.

Creative

Set, Douglas Stein. Costumes, Victoria Petrovich; lighting, Nancy Schertler; sound, Tom Morse; composer-arranger, Bruce Hurlbut; production stage manager, Nancy Harrington. Artistic director, Todd Haimes. Opened Jan. 9, 1997. Reviewed Jan. 7. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

Cast: Maduka Steady (Octave), Christopher Evan Welch (Sylvestre), Bill Irwin (Scapin), Hillel Meltzer (Gendarme/ Porter), Sean Rector (Gendarme/Porter), Kristin Chenoweth (Hyacinth), Count Stovall (Argante), Gerry Vichi (Geronte), Jonathan Wade (Leander), Marina Chapa (Zerbinette), Mary Bond Davis (Nerine).
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