There are no slamming doors — no doors at all, in fact, on a set that’s nothing but six chairs — but “Love Child” has the two most important elements of a farce: a plot that gets ludicrously complex and artists who keep the chaos under control. Because the creatives know what they’re doing, auds can savor the possibility that everything will fall apart, without actually believing a meltdown is possible.Writer-stars Daniel Jenkins and Robert Stanton give themselves an enormous challenge: They play all 12 characters in this backstage farce about a theater company trying to stage a Greek tragedy, and they do it without changing costumes. Their bodies, voices and rubbery faces are the only tools they use to create an entire world. It’s easy, however, to imagine what every character wears and how they style their hair. Jenkins and Stanton, both veteran character actors, stoke the imagination with their remarkable physical and vocal precision. And their perfs have the same deranged wit as their writing. In the first scene, for instance, we meet Joel (Jenkins), a flailing actor auditioning for hideous TV shows while trying to mount his own adaptation of “Ion,” an obscure Euripides tragedy, in a former sausage factory. As Joel sits in his car, things seem normal enough, until Stanton lumbers on as Joel’s father, Richard. With a horrible, open-mouthed grin, Richard sits next to his son and talks without moving his lips. Turns out, Richard is wearing a giant rubber mask. He’s a failed actor too, so he has taken a job playing the mascot for a family restaurant. He explains this while making loud sucking sounds, peeling the invisible mask off his face, and then he gives his son this bit of wisdom: “Like my ex used to say, ‘You actors are all just a bunch of carnie trash.’ He was right!” So … that’s a Greek tragedy, two failing careers and a gay dad in a clown suit, all in the first three minutes. And the script keeps upping the audacity. Joel’s co-stars in “Ion” are all dope heads, divas and derelicts, and they’re not half as wild as his blowsy agent (also his mother) and her assistant, who thinks everything happening onstage is real. Stanton and Jenkins make each character clear, and they structure their plot to resemble Euripides’ play — about an orphan who discovers his remarkable ancestry. In between the puns and the recurring bit about a slick spot on the stage, there’s a sophisticated story of betrayal, deceit and love. Love wins out, and the final scenes trade madcap comedy for touching sincerity. The tonal shift works because amid all the hijinks, we’ve learned enough about these people to care for them. Few comedies achieve that kind of sweetness, with a happy ending that isn’t covered in goo. Credit director Carl Forsman, a.d. of Keen Company, for capturing the emotional nuance of the writing. While the thesps jump from character to character, the helmer keeps the pace frantic in the funniest bits and injects stillness just when we’re supposed to pay attention. Better yet, the director doesn’t linger. Jokes and revelations land, and then it’s on to the next bit. Many helmers would stretch these moments out, insisting we take them in, but Forsman trusts us to follow along. That’s the kind of confidence that makes a farce satisfying.
59E59 Theaters; 199 seats; $15 top
A Primary Stages presentation of a play in one act by Daniel Jenkins and Robert Stanton. Directed by Carl Forsman.
Sets, Neil Patel; costumes, Candice Donnelly; lighting, Jeff Croiter, Grant Yeager; choreography, Tracy Bersley; production stage manager, Joanne E. McInerny. Opened Oct. 26, 2008. Reviewed Oct. 21. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.
With: Daniel Jenkins, Robert Stanton.