(Swans - October 18, 2010) A few months back on Swans I wondered out loud whether George Bernard Shaw's popularity had not been waning; whether in fact, he was still as pertinent as he had appeared to be a century ago. As if to trounce that speculation, South Coast Rep has mounted one of Shaw's most difficult plays and produced one of the finest Shavian productions in living memory. So much for foggy speculations.
Misalliance is one of Shaw's more problematic plays. The first half is almost exclusively devoted to the presentation of viewpoints relating to marriage, courtship, socialism, class, science, and other assorted topics -- all presented almost in the form of a debate with very little of that "dramatic action," which we are told is what theatre is supposed to be all about. The wit and depth of these subjects tossed around by the play's primary characters defy all the rules of dramatic construction and yet maintain our interest on the basis of ideas peppered with wit and delivered with tantalizing rhetoric.
In the second half of the play, we are rewarded for the sparkling verbosity of the first act with a second act filled with incident and adventure in which the ideas espoused in Act One are dramatically demonstrated. It seems a brazen way to write a mainstream commercial comedy but when Act One and Act Two are combined, it produces a thoroughly satisfying sense of amalgamation and we recognize the kinship between both parts.
What maintains the first act word frolic and the segue into an event-filled second act is 1) the rich wit of GBS, 2) a perfectly chosen cast, and 3) the sense that we are in the company of a fecund thinker who is simultaneously both educating and diverting us.
An interesting exchange takes place in Act One in which the middle-aged Lord Summerhays lucidly describes the legitimate appeal of an older man for a younger woman, which is redolent of Shaw's own frustrated liaisons with a bevy of younger women that, if they didn't exactly break his heart, certainly made him aware of the gulf that exists between alluring young ladies and aging intellectual playwrights. Here one distinctly hears the sound of "special pleading'" going on and we are reminded of the fact that Shaw's proclivity towards the opposite sex was regularly buffeted if not entirely disdained. But this is only one penetrating section of a play filled with a bevy of intellectual stimulants.
Director Martin Benson has brought together a peerless cast in which everyone's character -- and their positions on the general topic of love and marriage -- is vividly expressed. The two comic highpoints of the production rest with Dakin Matthews, the randy Shavian shopkeeper John Tarleton whose daughter is wooed first by an effete noble youth (Wyatt Fenner) and then more successfully by an aviator (Pete Katona) who literally "drops in" on the family when his airplane encounters engine problems. He is accompanied (although he doesn't know it) by a garrulous co-pilot named Lina Szczepanowska who shortly sorts out the contradictions in the family unit.
In the second act, we encounter a marvelously etched member of the working class played to absolute perfection by J.D. Cullum, an actor who never disappoints and may well be the leading comedic performer of his generation. The by-play between Dakin Matthews and Cullum is the evening's highpoint, but the entire cast is so perfectly engulfed in their characters and Shaw's sense of comedic tuition that it seems wrong to single out any one performer.
The play is perfectly encapsulated in its title. What Shaw has written is a lighthearted critique about the ways in which we bundle up in marriages for reasons that should be suspect. It suggests the hardest thing to do is to make the right choice of a life mate and the easiest is to accept the manipulations of friends and family as to what represents "a proper marriage." Cynically, Shaw suggests there is no such thing and that the pitfalls are everywhere. Although he himself, after frustrating flings with actresses such as Ellen Terry and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, settled down with an unlikely, well-to-do, sedate wife, which, on the face of it, would seem to be a "misalliance."
The satisfaction of Martin Benson's free-wheeling production is maintained from the moment the play begins and remains stimulating and hilarious right the way through.
What the play does for me is to trounce the skepticism that I expressed previously about GBS's relevance to our own society. Any playwright that can generate such a comedic and stimulating experience is very much part of the contemporary mainstream and we should thank what gods there may be that Shaw is still with us.
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