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Oliver Parker!

Comedy jumps its genre and comes alarmingly close to tragedy.

Willa Cross - Johanna Day Jasper - John Larroquette Oliver Parker - Michael Zegen Agnes - Monica Raymund

At first exposure, Elizabeth Meriwether’s new play seems more realistically grounded than those deconstructionist comedies like “Heddatron” and “The Mistakes Madeline Made” that earned her a rep as one of downtown’s intellectual wits. But while “Oliver Parker!” might resemble a traditional coming-of-age comedy in this perky stageFarm production starring Michael Zegen and John Larroquette, when scribe applies her absurdist sensibility to the standard situation of a 17-year-old boy desperate to get laid, the comedy jumps its genre and comes alarmingly close to tragedy.

Meriwether, who penned the buzzed-about screenplay to “Friends With Benefits,” is always inspired when it comes to establishing a provocative comic situation. The discontented heroine of “Heddatron” looks up from her Ibsenesque life to find herself surrounded by robots. “The Mistakes Madeline Made” deposits its unhinged protagonist in a bleak futuristic office overrun by sinister machines.

Here, the situation seems more benign. Oliver Parker (Michael Zegen), the spoiled son of a pill-pushing doctor, is discovered making one of his regular visits to Jasper (John Larroquette), the old family chauffeur. For auds who grew up on odd-couple arrangements in TV sitcoms, this is a comfortable situation for comedy — and that’s exactly how the early scenes play in Evan Cabnet’s smartly helmed production.

Shaggy-maned and nasty-tempered as an old lion, the drunk and disorderly Jasper has made a pigsty of the shabby apartment that Oliver pays the rent on and keeps stocked with food and industrial-sized bottles of Beefeater vodka. But there’s an obvious bond of affection between this old reprobate and the smart-mouthed kid who matches him jab for jab in quick-witted repartee.

Larroquette, who accumulated five Emmys over his long career on television, is no less comfortable onstage. Preserving his dignity even when admitting that he killed the cat, Jasper presides over his squalid kingdom like some latter-day Falstaff, dying of loneliness but determined not to let the young Prince Hal know that he lives for the boy’s visits.

Zegen, who also cut his teeth in TV (most visibly on “Rescue Me”), plays Oliver with a winning combination of smart-ass intelligence and bad-boy charm. The interaction between the two thesps stays tight, even as we get hints of the secrets between them. And just watch them make the transition into darker emotional territory, once Oliver starts pouncing on unsuitable women (most notably, Johanna Day) in an ill-conceived and impetuous campaign to lose his virginity.

The 28-year-old Meriwether is something of a wunderkind on both coasts (“Friends With Benefits” is in its early days of production with Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman). But while the enforced discipline of working on a project for a major studio may have sharpened her skills at writing screenplays, she hasn’t given up some of her old dramatic hangups.

Whenever she goes over to the dark side, scribe uses snappy dialogue to light the way. “I’m beginning to realize that I don’t have a very good sense of boundaries,” Oliver says in all innocence, after being dissuaded from raping a comatose woman.

But instead of darkening the humor, or delving deeper into the characters who use it as protective covering, she runs variations on whatever worked the first time. Oliver reveals his painful secret in multiple versions of the same confession. Jasper expresses his feelings of guilt many times over. And since Oliver’s first botched seduction seemed to go well, he gets the chance to repeat it — twice.

No matter how modern the play or how mordant the comic vision, it’s still a tired technique.

Popular on Variety

Oliver Parker!

Cherry Lane Theater; 179 seats; $41 top

Production: A stageFarm production of a play in one act by Elizabeth Meriwether. Directed by Evan Cabnet.

Creative: Set, Lauren Halpern; costumes, Jessica Shay; lighting, Ben Stanton; sound, Zane Birdwell; production stage manager, Charles M. Turner, III. Reviewed May 14, 2010. Opened May 17. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast: Willa Cross - Johanna Day Jasper - John Larroquette Oliver Parker - Michael Zegen Agnes - Monica Raymund

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