When an actor once complained that the audience coughed through much of his performance, Laurence Olivier replied that a good actor captivates an audience so completely that every member loses all need for bodily functions.

Olivier’s quip proves true in the context of the Yale Repertory Theater’s uneven production of “The Way of The World.” The audience coughed overwhelmingly through half of the performance — almost drowning out the dialogue — and listened obediently through scattered scenes of brilliantly performed moments.

Much of the actors’ struggle may be attributed to the difficulty of the text. William Congreve’s restoration comedy follows all the constructs of the genre. Stock full of quick wit, thick plot and heavily florid verse, the play requires concentration and an intellectual humor for full appreciation.

The dense narrative tracks the intrigues of men and women as they mix love, money and deception into a well-ordered melange of lies and half-truths. The simple story follows the secret love affair of Mirabel (John Hines) and Mrs. Millament (Jessica Boevers), who cannot marry because her aunt threatens disinheritance. Linked to the seemingly star-crossed lovers, the subplot swirls around a high society married couple. Both partners have lovers, plot against each other and eventually succeed in maintaining an unhappy marriage.

Between these convoluted textual lines and Congreve’s humorous dissection of the class system of Restoration England, the play examines the thin line between love and loathing on all social scales.

But while a few actors combed the text for the rich insights and details Congreve readily supplies, the majority floundered through the classic antics and massacred the intended comedy.

Hines as Mirabel and Willis Sparks as Fainall delivered particularly lackluster renditions of the most sympathetic and finely textured of Congreve’s personalities. While the text demands Hines to command the stage in his every scene, he wanders around aimlessly, speaking when spoken to as if he was acting into a void. Sparks also seems to be acting without listening, although he seemed to make his actual boredom at least appropriate for his character.

The play is saved by the rare glimpses of genius provided by Sandra Shipley’s Lady Wishfort and Paul Mullins’ Witwood. Both of these actors tackle characters of larger-than-life proportions and run with it.

Shipley’s ever-changeable tactics, deep understanding of the text and strong use of physicality give her credibility as she switches instantly from the nadir of despair to the heights of ecstasy, from full-fledged seduction to bitter contempt.

As the fop, Witwood equally steals the focus of all of his scenes. Like Shipley, Mullin possesses the ability to make Congreve’s text leap into scintillating form as he explains Petulant’s (John Plumpis’) habit of “calling on himself” or tries to morph into the wall rather than deal with an embarrassing relation.

Perhaps the root of the problem stems from director Stan Wojewodski, who emphasizes a particularly static perspective of the play. While the plot moves rapidly, the actors stand still. The most action they are given is to walk across a room, and they are left with little choice but to remain talking heads for the remainder of their scenes.

“The Way of the World” attempts to stand on its own two feet, but like its stage design, it never quite fills up the space. Scenic Designer Scott Pask dwarfs his actors with large sets bathed in lighting designer Robert Wierzel’s lime-green glare. While the audience can clearly laugh at the absurdity of these elements and Congreve’s ingenious text, much is still left to be desired.

The Way of the World

University Theatre

Monday at 7 p.m.

Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m.

Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Info.: (203) 432-1234