Physician, please don't heal thyself. Thesp Brad Frazier's wide-eyed, neurotic psychologist saves the day in scientist-cum-playwright Carl Djerassi's confused noir pastiche "Three on a Couch," a short, intermittently sharp comedy about a therapist losing patience with his patients.

Physician, please don’t heal thyself. Thesp Brad Frazier’s wide-eyed, neurotic psychologist saves the day in scientist-cum-playwright Carl Djerassi’s confused noir pastiche “Three on a Couch,” a short, intermittently sharp comedy about a therapist losing patience with his patients. To be fair, self-important novelist Stephen Marx and his wife Miriam would test the limits of anybody’s endurance: She’s as crazy as a loon and he’s a self-inflated jerk.

Djerassi’s farce is designed to withstand endless analyses — for example, the oversexed Miriam (Lori Funk) corresponds to the id, her self-absorbed husband (Mark Pinter) to the ego and their emotionally paralyzed shrink Theodore (Frazier) to the superego — but not to actually follow any of the genre’s rules.

That’s where Frazier, who doesn’t appear to require trifling details like “character,” comes in. An inspired physical comedian with a perpetually surprised expression on his guileless face, Frazier’s Dr. Theodore Hoffman clings to a particular kind of dignity that exists solely to be taken away. His entrance is instructive to anyone treating melancholia: Hoffman stands in the doorway, smiles, looks around, takes a confident step forward, and quickly trips over his own feet and brains himself on the couch. Presto! Depression cured!

Then, of course, there’s the plot to contend with, which is a high price to pay for Frazier’s antics. At first blush, it looks like Marx is a suicide case: He all but threatens to kill himself during the first session we see, and we subsequently discover that his sailboat has been discovered drifting on the water shortly thereafter. But wait! Marx has merely faked his own death, in part to read his own obituaries, but also to experiment with “heteronyms” — noms des plumes that enable him to write in different voices, as different people.

This, in a word, is boring. Marx is an annoying blowhard (though occasionally a funny one) and it’s impossible to care about the intricacies of his self-involvement, but Djerassi heedlessly gives him monologue after monologue about his greatness. Miriam is equally demonstrative: When she finds some of her husband’s papers, the contents drive her to Hoffman’s couch and much gasping and hand-wringing ensues.

When either Pinter or Funk is on stage with Frazier, the pairings are a sight to behold. Frazier doesn’t seem to be in control of most of his limbs, and Funk can’t take a step that wouldn’t be at home on the dance floor. Pinter, by contrast, plants himself and declaims, giving Frazier a whole catalogue of twitches to employ. Unfortunately, the play’s last few scenes are between Pinter and Funk, and the hammy pose-striking starts to look like a third-grade face-making contest.

This is exacerbated by astonishingly wrong-headed direction from Elena Araoz, who breaks, over and over again, what Theater 101 courses call “the contract with the audience.” Sometimes the characters can hear the melodramatic incidental music; sometimes they can’t. Occasionally they can walk through walls. Occasionally they break the fourth wall. There’s nothing wrong with the anything-for-a-gag school of comedy, but if there’s no internal consistency, we’re frequently left feeling confused, or expecting a joke when none is forthcoming.

Not all the mistakes are Araoz’s; Djerassi’s play is certainly a muddle of influences and ideas. It remains, however, surprisingly worth the short running time, if only to see Frazier extracting what joy there is to be had in “Three on a Couch” and sharing it generously.

Three on a Couch

Soho Playhouse; 177 seats; $42.50 top

Production

A Redshift Prods. Scientist's Studio presentation of a play in one act by Carl Djerassi. Directed by Elena Araoz.

Creative

Set, Suzan Zeeman Rogers; costumes, Chloe Chapin; lighting, Justine Townsend; sound, Arielle Edwards, David Thomas; production stage manager, CJ LaRoche. Opened June 8, 2008. Reviewed June 5. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Theodore Hoffman - Brad Frazier Stephen Marx - Mark Pinter Miriam Marx - Lori Funk
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