FILM CRITIC ROGER EBERT once wrote that the great screen comedians laughed in their art in order to avoid tears, an astute observation that struck me while watching the Printer's Devil Theatre production of Nicky Silver's raucous Free Will and Wanton Lust. Though the play initially sparkles like a warped, slightly cruel, modern version of a Depression-era film comedy, Silver is soon taking a pickaxe to the veneer of sophistication, and hauling out gleaming loads of melancholy. If director Paul Willis' cunning staging falters here and there, it also mines laughter rich with sadness.

"Mother, don't you care about me at all?" a morose Amy (deadpan Hilary Ketchum) asks her fading socialite mother, Claire (Cathy Sutherland), who quickly responds, "Do you want honesty or support?" This family dysfunction--the deficiency in displaying real emotion--extends to Amy's clenched, dyspeptic sibling, Phillip (Stephen Hando), and soon wreaks havoc on his deceptively prissy fiancée, Vivian (Tricia Rodley) and his mother's studly young lover, Tony (Travis Svanda). Everything about Willis' clean take on the material indicates a deft awareness of its assets. He's shaped the comedy with palpable design (aided by Jeffrey T. Cook's marvelous set, which puts Art Deco poses under the microscope), and puts his people through their paces in keen sync with Silver's world. When this genuinely funny production stumbles, in fact, it's because it's nailed the paces to the people. The staging is often so breathlessly crisp that the actors are squeezed together, without the freedom to glide with the extravagant, madcap flourishes that, in '30s screwball comedies, were able to distract you from the grueling precision of the comic delivery.

Consequently, things work better in Act II, when the shenanigans relax and Silver displays his skill with monologues. An extraordinary speech from Claire--a lovely, virtuoso turn by Sutherland--begins as a cavalierly acidic memory of her parents, and blossoms into a kind of wild despair about a decaying New York City and her own crumbling life. It's matched by a similarly dark, hysterical reflection from Phillip (Hando's remarkable comic ferociousness plays better here alone), and a rather stunning coda between the two lonely siblings. With deeper rewards than you have any right to expect, Free Will is funnier when it's crying.