Theater of the preposterous

Reverse Psychology Presented by the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Written and directed by Charles Ludlam. When it comes to comedy, farce, and all-around anarchy, I don't know an artist more talented than Charles Ludlam.

By anarchy, I mean the way Ludlam and his troupe -- the Ridiculous Theatrical Company -- take shots at every target in sight, including themselves. Not that their work is haphazard. On the contrary, their new piece has the manic precision of a classical French farce. But the performances are broad and theatrical, as if the play itself (including its occasional lapses of taste) were the silliest thing of all.

And who's the star of the show? The playright himself, naturally, using his script as a mere springboard for some of the most energetic mugging, miming, and mischiefmaking I've ever seen.

"Reverse Psychology" bears some resemblance to Noel Coward's "Private Lives." The main characters are two psychiatrists -- of the comical, not the clinical, -- who are married to each other, but in love with each other's patients. The first act finds them in New York, winding their lives and loves into a hopelesss tangle. The second act plops them into a "resort boatel" called Calypso Beach, where their confusions and contradictions culminate in a thoroughly preposterous conclusion.

Ludlam seems to have a healthy disrespect for psychobabble, so his shrinks are often more perverse than their patients. Certainly there's not a shred of real psychology here -- just a sharp parody of contemporary jargon and of the lazy notion that a new therapy or pill is the cure for every emotional wrinkle.

Yet, Ludlam is no beady-eyed social critic. It's just that he finds as much to laugh at in psychology as in old movies, and sometimes the two mix together hilariously. There's an inspired scene where a patient leaves for a new therapist, and the old one behaves like a woman scorned in some old Bette Davis picture. Here, and in a couple of other passages of the show, Ludlam demonstrates his ability to cover a dozen moods in 30 seconds, bringing each one fully and funnily alive before charging on to the next. It's a unique talent, and Ludlam uses it brilliantly.

Though some past work by the Ridiculous Troupe has passed every boundary of good taste, "Reverse Psychology" stays pretty much within PG limits, except for a few seconds of nudity that could just as easily have been avoided. As usual, Ludlam directed the show as well as writing and starring in it, and he is also credited with the decor and the lyrics of the title song. The rest of the cast consists of Bill Vehr, Charlote Forbes, and Black- Eyed Susan.

"Reverse Psychology" runs through mid-November, when the Ridiculous Troupe will revive its adaptation of "A Christmas Carol," a delicious family treat that had its first performances last year. And if the whole idea sounds too crazy to work, be comforted by an ancient joke that I'll steal from Ludlam as shamelessly as "Reverse Psychology" steals it from an old Marx Brothers movie: "There's a sanity clause in the contract. But you can't fool me. There's no such thing as Sanity claus."

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