HABEAS CORPUS, Interplay. Comedy is a harsh god. Get the rhythm wrong, misjudge the tone, put the emphasis on the wrong syllable, fail to strike the right balance of realism and silliness, and you get coughs instead of laughs, grim stares instead of guffaws, the two Ronnies instead of Monty Python. David Perkovich’s production of Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus is this kind of laughless, misbegotten comedy. And it isn’t Bennett’s fault. His play is funny enough on the page.

In transplanting this witty farce to the stage Perkovich made one mistake that doomed the whole project: he and his cast confused acting funny with being funny. For all its farcical silliness, Bennett’s play is filled with real characters with real wants, and much of its humor–and that of most farces–comes from seeing these identifiable characters becoming enmeshed in the machinery of the plot. Perkovich’s actors are over-the-top, a style all too reminiscent of the intentional bad acting in Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend.

The results are predictable. Bennett’s best lines–“Because she’s flat-chested he thinks she’s religious”–fall dead from the actors’ mouths. While his cornier lines–“[That doctor] couldn’t heal a shoe”–seem sub-Hee Haw. Even more annoying is the way this cast’s overacting squashes Bennett’s occasional bouts of seriousness. When Arthur says to his estranged wife, “Having you, I didn’t want you. Losing you, I want you again,” we should be moved, at least a little. When Leo Harmon delivers the line it feels like just another botched punch line.