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`Sweet Table at the Richelieu' on stage. Ronald Ribman's play struggles to dramatize weighty questions

Toward the end of Ronald Ribman's problematic new play, ``Sweet Table at the Richelieu,'' one of the protagonists asks, ``How could it be worse?'' The response comes, ``It is worse because it is happening to me.'' It is an exchange typifying the play's topical wrestlings - a society decaying under solipsism and satiety - while illustrating their failure to cohere as theater. For Mr. Ribman's play, having its world premi`ere at the American Repertory Theatre (ART), grapples with its weighty ontological questions in highly poetic and imagistic ways without ever grounding them in character. As a result, the play never ascends beyond lumbering polemics, despite Ribman's linguistic effluence. Meanwhile, the production, under Andrei Serban's direction, fends for itself, vainly seeking substance in a surfeit of style.

And style there is, in abundance. Whether it is John Conklin's opulently rococo set (the play is set in the great room of an Alpine spa) or Ribman's determinedly poetic dialogue (``Ibex in wet idyllic grass'') or Serban's directorial eclecticism that mixes, but never marries, outright naturalism with the vaguely surrealistic, ``Sweet Table'' remains an aesthetically odd and ultimately unsatisfying theatrical experience. In a regional theater that has attained a virtually peerless reputation for staging provocative, iconoclastic works that are heavy on visual imagery, ``Sweet Table at the Richelieu'' is a clinker.

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It is a failure, due in large part to Ribman's inability to present simultaneous levels of fantasy and reality, but nonetheless surprising, considering the usually sure-fire touch of Serban. He is one of that trio of hailed Romanian directors whose trademark has been the restaging of classics with fresh, albeit playful, theatrical magic. Indeed, the disparity between the director's acerbic and electrifying treatment of three Greek tragedies, ``Fragments of a Trilogy,'' currently in revival at New York's La Mama Theater, and the mannered pretensions of ``Sweet Table'' is all too evident.

``Sweet Table'' begins imaginatively enough on a windswept sleigh ride, which Serban has staged with the coachman and two passengers poking their torsos through a fluttering sheet of white parachute silk. The talk between the two women - one an aging aristocrat, Frau von Kessel, the other a woman of mystery, Jeanine Cendrars - is full of envy and reprisals: at first an argument over a shared blanket, but later an expanded postprandial discussion of misfortune and misery.

In the gilded great room, in front of a vast white table of sweets, each of the hotel's affluent but unhappy guests mourns a loss. Each has come to the spa seeking ``rejuvenation'' but finds, instead, only a ``world [that] degenerates until there is nothing left....'' Frau von Kessel laments the decline of her position and Old World values; the beautiful, jealousy-besotted Estelle Dusseau bemoans her husband's infidelities; Jeanine mourns the death of her child and an impending divorce. And so on. The talk is diffuse and full of allusion. Petty differences arise and are aired (one of the play's themes is the conflict between memory and an unwillingness to remember) but with no more consequence than any of the upper-class wranglings common to ``Dynasty.''

Only with the arrival of Cesare Bottivicci, a furred and disfigured seer who has ``only to touch another's skin to see the future'' does Ribman drop much of his over-intellectualizing and reveal a preference for the increasingly totemic Jeanine, ``the lady of unending hope, who will not trade hope for all the sweet release of comfort.'' It's a hurtled denouement, this sudden allegiance for that life which, albeit painful, remains ``a song in the mouth of annihilation.'' And it is a position not entirely prepared for by the play's earlier posturing.

While Ken Howard is commanding in both voice and manner as the bewhiskered Bottivicci, only a handful of the other actors locate their characters amid the production's scattered demands. Jeremy Geidt is perfect as the smarmy, Robin Leach-like Dr. Atmos. And Harriet Harrison and Thomas Derrah are blackly funny as the novelist Mimosa Klein and her lowbrow companion, Franco Boupacha.

While dancer/choreographer Lucinda Childs brings a stylized awkwardness to her largely surrealistic role as Jeanine, she is utterly unconvincing as an actress. Her inability to concretize Jeanine's pain in anything other than voice or movement is a key element in the production's failure. ``Sweet Table at the Richelieu'' remains an inadequate look at the horrors lurking behind the sweetmeats.

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