Credit: Michael Brosilow

In his dark comedy about an avaricious, ill-tempered British plutocrat who switches places with a sweet, mild-mannered American kindergarten teacher (both played with considerable comic verve by Rainn Wilson), Matthew-Lee Erlbach pays homage to a brace of farceurs, among them Eugène Marin Labiche, Georges Feydeau, Joe Orton, Charles Ludlam, and Michael Frayn.

But the writer he most closely resembles is Terry Southern. Like Southern, Erlbach is a heavy-duty iconoclast. Before The Doppelgänger is over, no sacred cow is left unslaughtered. Also like Southern, Erlbach puts his comedy in the service of a theme usually deemed too serious for farce. In Dr. Strangelove (for which Southern wrote the screenplay) it was nuclear war. In this play, it’s the postcolonial exploitation of African nations for their natural resources.

Sadly, Erlbach—or Erlbach as interpreted by director Tina Landau and her ensemble—lacks Southern’s lighthearted spirit. Where Southern loves puckishly mocking foolish mortals, Erlbach lapses into annoying, earnest moralizing.

Parts of the play are very funny. Erlbach delights in packing in references to other, earlier comic writers and actors—Danny Kaye, Abbott and Costello, Peter Sellers, even Dr. Seuss. (James Vincent Meredith’s killingly funny send-up of a wheelchair-bound African dictator, owes much to Sellers’s Strangelove.) But whenever things get too funny, Erlbach, Landau, and company slam on the brakes. It’s as if they, like our Puritan ancestors, get nervous whenever they see people having too much fun. They don’t seem to understand what Southern, Ludlam, and the rest knew in their souls: that comedy is all about revealing the repressed, expressing all the awful things we all try to keep hidden away. Instead they remind us that we’re here to condemn “blood diamonds,” “blood lithium” and other horrors of postcolonial Africa.   v