Machiavelli’s “La Mandragola” is a play with a very simple plot: boy wants girl; clever friend helps dupe inconvenient-obstacle old man; boy and girl end up happily ever after. All you need to do is make the audience want the young man to win and the old man to lose, and you’re golden! This leaves a lot of room for goofing off and showing off, and everyone in the show certainly does. But though the actors and director Leah Franqui ’09 absolutely deserve our admiration, they never earn our sympathy.

The audience needs to love Callimaco (Jacob Liberman ’10), the young man: The whole play exists to gratify his desire for ‘sexual relations’ with lovely Lucrezia (Isabel Siragusa ’11) despite her marriage to old man Nicia (Ned Fulmer ’09). But though Liberman’s a virtual kaleidoscope of hyperbolic gesture and grimace — I’ve never seen such an unrestrained and chameleonic performance at Yale — he’s so stagey that it’s hard to really feel sorry for him or cheer him on. It’s unclear why his clever friend, street-smart Ligurio (Lars White), should care about him either, and at times it almost seems as if Ligurio’s taking advantage of this immature, clowning Callimaco. How can we root for a team like this?

The paradox of Liberman’s virtuosity not leaving room for our liking him has echoes all through this production: Almost every time an actor really puts his or her talent on display, it undermines the sympathy relations that drive the play. Fulmer’s off-the-cuffs are so good in his scenes with Liberman and White that we start to like him as much as either of our ‘heroes’; the three play off each other so well that, oddly, a new hero-trio emerges! Instead of a pretentious dumbass we want to see screwed over, Fulmer gives us a weird and hilarious old man who seems to be as in on the game as anyone.

This makes for great moments, but it means that Lucrezia’s position, which the script makes difficult no matter how you work things (she’s half-raped but then totally okay with it afterwards!), becomes really disturbing. It’s one thing if the world conspires against an old husband to make his young wife and her lover happy; it’s another if the world and her husband delightedly conspire to have her raped, which is how things start to seem. Kalyan Ray-Mazumder ’12 puts in a crafty performance as Brother Timothy — the priest who lets himself be bribed to convince Lucrezia there’s nothing wrong with this — but his slightly evil take adds to the impression that an innocent person is being tooled.

It doesn’t help that any opportunity Siragusa has to tell her side of the story is played over by O’Hagan Blades ’10 as Lucrezia’s mother, Sostrata — another example of strong talent actually obscuring important subtleties. Both Blades’ and Fulmer’s improv reactions, sometimes with a new expression or gesture for every line another character says, often take dramatic power out of the hands of the characters supposedly advancing the plot. So while Ligurio is in theory the brilliant mastermind coordinating everything, all White can do most of the time is struggle to hold the situation together while everyone goes crazy around him.

What’s most frustrating about all this is how close they come to making it work. At the very beginning, as the audience files in, the actors are on stage and ‘out of character,’ stretching, checking the script, even arguing with the director. Everything’s wonderfully relaxed, and we get a chance to admire their costumes and makeup and the large mural at the back of the stage, all colorful and slightly goofy. It’s really nice, and if the actors had just smiled at the audience and begun the play from that same casual, relaxed place, it would have been a much warmer and more coherent piece. Instead, after a time, they exclaim ‘Oh! There’s an audience!’ and though the play that follows is full of attempts at artificially induced casualness, they never really drop the mask and relate sincerely to us — leaving us dazzled but a little cold.

“La Mandragola” runs this weekend at the Whitney Humanities Center. It is a senior project in Theater Studies for Leah Franqui.