Here's the conundrum of comedy: Is it deadlier not to laugh when you're supposed to -- or to laugh when you're not? Newbie scribe Rajiv Joseph has yet to work that out in "All This Intimacy," a comedy that can't decide how funny it wants to be about a guy who gets three women pregnant -- or how seriously it wants to take his moral conversion.

Here’s the conundrum of comedy: Is it deadlier not to laugh when you’re supposed to — or to laugh when you’re not? Newbie scribe Rajiv Joseph (“Huck & Holden”) has yet to work that out in “All This Intimacy,” a comedy that can’t decide how funny it wants to be about a guy who gets three women pregnant — or how seriously it wants to take his moral conversion. Helming for Second Stage’s uptown workshop series, Giovanna Sardelli hasn’t got a grip, either, with hapless thesps wobbling between full-steam-ahead farce and maudlin displays of emotion. Sitcom or soap opera? You decide.

It’s probably safe to assume Joseph wants to generate laughs with the predicament of 30-year-old poet Ty (Thomas Sadoski) when he learns he’s impregnated three women. Indeed, this story angle plays out crisply, with flashback scenes of Ty romping with girlfriend Jen (Gretchen Egolf), his 40-year-old neighbor Maureen (Amy Landecker) and his 18-year-old student Becca (Krysten Ritter), enthusiastic partners all.

Having established his hero’s comic dilemma, Joseph devises a quirky complication when Jen’s dominatrix sister, Franny (Kate Nowlin), who is obsessed with her upcoming marriage to Ty’s best friend, Seth (Adam Green), hits the roof over her sister’s ill-timed pregnancy.

“You’re gonna ruin my wedding pictures,” Franny explodes, in Nowlin’s hugely funny reading of this over-the-top character. “You’re going to be fat and bloated and ugly at my wedding.”

In her rage, Franny nixes Ty as best man, banishing him from the wedding party. Such as it is, that’s the essential plot complication at this stage of the proceedings, and there’s no reason it wouldn’t work on some guy-centric sitcom like “Two and a Half Men.”

Joseph seems to be aiming for a more absurdist brand of comedy when Ty gets the bright idea of airing his paternity issues at a dinner party attended by all three of his inamoratas, along with Franny and Seth. That, too, seems like a situation that might play on TV, especially with a lead-in from “The Man Show.”

The only drawback so far is that Ty is coming across as a total jerk, and Sadoski, despite sending frantic semaphoric messages of guilelessness by shrugging his shoulders and batting his eyelashes, is unable to make him a lovable jerk.

That’s when the play drops its metaphoric pants in a plea for approval.

With little soul-searching (or even conventional dialogue) to back up his transformation, Ty suddenly turns over a new leaf and begs all three women, along with Franny and Seth, to forgive him his trespasses. Literally falling on his knees (and what ever made Sardelli think that was a cool directorial choice?), he goes from woman to woman to plead his case, becoming more of a worm at every turn.

“Why is everyone being so mean to me?” he whines, losing whatever sympathy he might have earned by kissing the floor.

Challenged to respond to Ty’s improbable conversion, only two performers hit the right comic note. Nowlin hangs tough as howling-wolf Franny, while Krysten Ritter, adorably deadpan-droll throughout as Becca, simply gives the guy the evil eye — and a good dose of teen contempt. Everyone else turns eerily serious, playing the so-called reality of the emotion without acknowledging the (presumably comic) absurdity of the situation.

Or maybe the scribe just didn’t have the heart to follow his premise through to the absurdist conclusion it seems to demand. With a plot as outrageous as this one, this play demands to end on a note of comic desperation. Although there is plenty of desperation in evidence, none of it is comic.

All This Intimacy

McGinn/Cazale; 99 seats; $30 top

Production

A Second Stage Theater Uptown presentation of a play in two acts by Rajiv Joseph. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli.

Creative

Set, David Newell; costumes, Amy Clark; lighting, Rie Ono; sound, Bart Fasbender; production stage manager, Rachel J. Perlman. Opened July 27, 2006. Reviewed July 25. Running time: 1 HOUR, 55 MIN.

Cast

Jen - Gretchen Egolf Seth - Adam Green Maureen - Amy Landecker Franny - Kate Nowlin Becca - Krysten Ritter Ty - Thomas Sadoski

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