Laugh machine is missing taste; Beyond Therapy. Play by Christopher Durang. Starring John Lithgow and Dianne West. Directed by John Madden.

As a clockwork laugh machine ready-made for Broadway, this play works well, with gags and punch lines falling all over one another. But the lives of the characters are so tangled, and in ways so miserable, that you long for relief.

The playwright, Christopher Durang, offers none. Instead, his comedy relies on our shared exasperation with a long list of modern foibles, from ''personal'' newspaper ads to bad restaurants, with a special nod to psychotherapists. It also relies on everything from knee-jerk giggles to four-letter words, a device that's not worthy of Durang's craftsmanship.

The action focuses on Bruce's long courtship of Prudence, which begins in the first scene - after they meet through a ''personal'' - and hasn't finished when the final curtain falls. Though this romance takes on a life of its own, it serves mainly as a vehicle for jokes, until a welling of dour sentiment at the end. And there is a secondary character who never rises above a homosexual stereotype.

Commissioned and originally produced by the Phoenix Theater, the play had a successful Off Broadway run before moving to its current Broadway engagement at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. John Madden has skillfully directed the new production, which moves swiftly within Andrew Jackness's workable settings.

The cast is uniformly capable, with special credit going to John Lithgow and Kate McGregor-Stewart.

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