2005_08_arts_scapin.jpg The sun was still fairly well up in the sky when the New York Classical Theatre’s free outdoor performance of Moliere’s Scapin began on Saturday when Gothamist went to see it. By the end of the show dusk had settled in and the crew was using flashlights as footlights, but the lightness of the sky throughout much of it was just as well – the better to see this utterly delightful little performance. Plus it was good to be able to see in order to follow the cast around, as Scapin (like most of NYCT’s plays) is done in “environmental” format, meaning that every scene or so, you get up from your spot and move to a new little grove of the park.

This is one of Moliere’s less-performed plays, and it is kind of a trifle; it will remind those who have seen it of Tartuffe, except without quite as many levels of meaning running through all of it. Fortunately, this is an adaptation/translation by Bill Irwin and Mark O’Donnell, who were exactly suited to the task, and they’ve done a wonderful job of making it modern yet not compromising its original sensibility, and giving it somewhat more heft to make it feel relevant to audiences today. Like so many plays of the commedia dell’arte format, Scapin revolves around mistaken identities and the ingenious wiles of a servant. Two, in this case: Scapin (Grant Neale), who serves a Signor Geronte and his son Leander, and Sylvestre (Erik Gratton), who serves Signor Argante and his son Octave. The two Signors were away, with their sons supervised by the servants, but the boys fall hopelessly in love with two girls who are not exactly of the right class – Hyacinth, an orphan, and Zerbinette, a gypsy. When the fathers return, Scapin and Sylvestre have to find a way to allow the sons to stay with these girls, but somehow mollify the Signors at the same time, since they had other plans for their heirs. Naturally there are lots of twists and turns along the way, and much slapstick humor that shows just how eternal and natural the impulse to laugh at people getting beaten up is.

Most of the fun of this production comes from the fantastic performers. Erik Gratton steals just about every scene he’s in with his half-innocent, half-devilish expressions and rubber limbs. But Grant Neale is excellent in his part, too, getting laughs out of even the hokiest double entendres as well as doing backflips and generally running circles around (in every sense) the people he’s supposed to be serving. The other characters don’t have nearly as much time on stage but they make the most of it, delivering their lines in just the sort of almost-overacted but still very winning and funny manner that Moliere surely intended the play to be done in. There’s not much to be said about the set, obviously, since Gothamist isn’t about to start critiquing Central Park; the “environmental” deal was a little awkward at times and didn’t always seem necessary, since the play doesn’t really call for major changes of scenery, but on the other hand it certainly kept the audience on their toes and served as an indicator of everyone’s enthusiasm, with quite a few people eagerly scampering ahead of the crowd at each shift.

The Fringe Festival is starting on Friday, as you probably know by now, and it will be bringing a mind-boggling number of quirky, cutting-edge new shows to venues downtown. But if you get a little fatigued by that scene (and really, even if you don’t), check out this relatively ancient show in its quiet little corner of the Upper West Side. Gothamist has mentioned a lot of outdoor productions of classics in the past weeks, but Scapin really stands out.

Details: Show up at the Central Park West/103rd St., by the park entrance, at 7pm Thurs.-Sun. The show moves in a circle around the little pond there, ending at 100th, so if you’re late you can walk in and find it without much trouble. Scapin runs through Aug. 28.