So often in the fine arts these days, everything has to be called a "project," always sounding a bit more like research or fact-finding than anything creative. But in the case of Simpatico Theatre Project's premiere, The Lysistrata Project, at Walnut Street Theatre's Studio 5, the creators perhaps didn't know what else to call it.
Part update, part adaptation, part new play, part political theater, this Aristophanes play is no longer about Greek women withholding sex until their husbands make a peace treaty to end one of their eternal wars. In the "project" version, five women use a similar tactic, occupying the Acropolis to repeal laws requiring husbands to approve their wives' birth-control methods.
It's a tall order. Though many Greek plays easily accommodate an overlay of modern times, this one walks many fine lines and, in a new adaptation by P. Seth Bauer, isn't all it can be, but is two-thirds of the way there. Ostensibly, it's set in ancient times. Dialogue is written with a charming archaic accent. Ancient Greek locales are referred to, but so are modern birth-control pills.
Yet the steady stream of ribald laughs only temporarily disguises a core flaw: The play characterizes a culture in which withholding sex holds much power because men appear to have extremely limited sexual options. Not so now. Thus, the second act's running joke about sex-starved men with painful perpetual erections only holds up (no pun intended) if you don't think too much.
Also, too many scenes cover similar ground. The female characters are so much more vividly written than the male ones (and much better differentiated) that there's never a question as to which side will emerge victorious. Predictable outcomes are fine when the plot is effectively ambushed along the way - which happens here, but not with stakes high enough to be truly effective.
As it is, The Lysistrata Project generates a certain amount of fun, with stylized direction from Allison Garrett that plays almost like choreography. The ensemble cast seizes on every possible laugh, the women having a particularly strong anchor in Miriam White as the title character, who rules with the power of her reasoning.
She has a wonderful foil in Sarah Van Auken, the one virgin among them, initially clueless but soon emerging as one of the clearer heads of the bunch. Colleen Corcoran generates the best offhanded humor as a tough Spartan woman who has 20-some children and just can't cope with another.
A date play? With so many messages that can be taken so many ways, that might be dangerous.
The Lysistrata Project
Through June 2 at the Walnut Street Theatre's Studio 5, Ninth and Walnut Streets. Tickets: $17-$22. 215-423-0254 or www.simpatico.org