Joel Gross' windy three-character period drama has the benefit of one wonderful performance and one very good one, but no three actors in the world can sustain this deeply serious bodice-ripper's entertainment value for more than 90 minutes.

Off with its second act! Joel Gross’ windy three-character period drama (four, if you count Hugo Salazar Jr. as the wordless, increasingly annoyed footman) has the benefit of one wonderful performance and one very good one, but no three actors in the world can sustain this deeply serious bodice-ripper’s entertainment value for more than 90 minutes. “Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh” returns to the Gotham stage after a well-reviewed first run last year, but it still needs the help of a dramaturg who’s not afraid to employ the guillotine.

It all starts off so well, much like the monarchy: Samantha Ives plays the lavishly named Elisabeth Louise Vigee le Brun, a painter of lowly birth who has bitten and scratched her way up the social ladder. Now she’s almost at the top: The aristocracy employ her to indulge them with flattering portraiture and then recommend her to their friends.

Ives does her femme fatale thing quite well, with Jonathan Kells Phillips a little less acute as her leering suitor, Count Alexis de Ligne.

Elisabeth beds the Count to get to his friends and, by extension, their friends — a straight line of connections and bedfellows that leads directly to the ultimate paintee: Marie Antoinette (Amanda Jones).

The play’s success hinges on the chemistry between Ives and Phillips, and they don’t quite pull it off: Phillips appears a little uncomfortable (this may have something to do with T. Michael Hall’s unflattering costumes), which behooves neither his character’s status nor his rep as a ladykiller.

The more successful romance is the platonic mutual seduction between Elisabeth and Marie in the confines of Kevin Judge’s palace sets, which manage to be both minimal and lavish. Jones plays Marie with a wonderful and frightening woman-child innocence; it’s a difficult role to make both probable and sympathetic — the character was basically a spoiled rich kid, after all — but Jones pulls it off, cooing her lines and occasionally trying for a grandeur that Marie can’t quite manage. She’s an adorable failure in Jones’ hands, and it makes large sections of the play worth the running time.

Large sections, but not all of it. Ultimately, this is a story with one too many subplots, and it’s hard to blame all of the Count’s failings on Phillips: Gross wants de Ligne to be a heroic rake straight out of a Harlequin Romance, and he doesn’t quite fit in with the mature and complex Elisabeth and Marie.

It’s an interesting story, but the oppressive length and the clumsiness of the de Ligne character should leave it to the mercies of the National Razor.

Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh

St. Luke's Theater; 175 seats; $56.50 top

Production

An Earl Prods. presentation of a play in two acts by Joel Gross. Directed by Robert Kalfin.

Creative

Sets, Kevin Judge; costumes, T. Michael Hall; lighting, Paul Hudson; sound, Marek Royce Press; production stage manager, D.C. Rosenberg. Opened July 10, 2008. Reviewed July 19. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Elisabeth Louise Vigee le Brun - Samantha Ives Marie Antoinette - Amanda Jones Count Alexis de Ligne - Jonathan Kells Phillips Footman - Hugo Salazar Jr.
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