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A CurtainUp Review

Les Gutman

Unlike some plays (the Roundabout's London Assurance of last season comes to mind -- see CurtainUp's review), which are long on comedy but essentially lacking in deeper purpose, Shaw's Misalliance delivers a cavalcade of ideas, wrapped around a full portion of his wit. Indeed, the inner strength of Misalliance is Shaw's piercing pen. There are enough snappy quips in this show to overload CurtainUp's Quotes 'n Notes feature. (In due course, I promise to nominate at least a few of my favorites for inclusion.) That's reason enough to see this show.

The story itself is a pretty sketchy country house affair. It takes place on a single day in May 1909, in the greenhouse of John Tarleton's estate in Surrey, England. The Tarleton household includes Tarleton (Brian Murray), a frustrated if unabashed bibliophile who earns his living as a successful underwear merchant, and his wife (Patricia Conolly), as well as two grown children, Johnny (Don Reilly) and Hypatia (Joanna Going). Johnny is what we would today call a dumb jock;  Hypatia is an eager young woman who is anxious to enjoy more of life's adventures than either of her parents deem wise.

During the course of the play, several visitors, some invited and some not, materialize. The invited guests are Lord Summerhays (Remak Ramsey) and his wimpy son, Bentley (Alan Tudyk), who is engaged to Hypatia. The uninvited guests include two who arrive quite noticeably and by accident from the sky, and one who arrives stealthily but on purpose, gunning for Mr. Tarleton. The former are the socialite/pilot Joey Percival (Sam Robards) and, unbeknownst to him, his flying companion, the Polish acrobat/dominatrix, Lina Szczepanowska (Elizabeth Marvel). The stealth-guest, known first as John Brown and later as Julius Baker (Zak Orth), is a clerk and avenger of his dead mother's honor, which Tarleton is said to have violated. He arrives to "stir the broth," to say the least. Without going into unnecessary detail, by play's end, Hypatia has replaced Bentley with Mr. Percival as her intended, and poor Bentley is set to depart airborne with the Polish powerhouse.

If it mattered, one could point out that no solid food or servants are in evidence for the duration of the play. (Shaw skirted dramaturgical criticism by denominating Misalliance a "debate" rather than a play, and these shortcomings no doubt account for its usual position below the top shelf of Shaw's work.) But it doesn't matter. Misalliance is about Shaw's great ideas, not great exposition, and it expounds masterfully on a bevy of them. Most of all, it is about families, children, marriage, love, death and aging, but it misses few opportunities to visit other Shavian favorites from "A" (for atheism) to "Z" (zoology).

With the raw material Shaw provides, it would seem a fairly simple matter to present a straightforward yet entertaining production. Proof of this is found in the apt portrayals of the three parents. They are well drawn and on target. Even if Murray and Ramsey fail to produce any remarkable new insight into the fathers' characters, both of these seasoned veterans know how to milk their lines for every ounce of effect. Patricia Conolly's portrayal of Mrs. Tarleton (her husband calls her Chickabiddy but Mrs. Tarleton seems more appropriate) is stronger still. She conveys every nuance of the character's social and cultural position without losing important traces of her more humble beginnings.

Beyond these characters, however, director David Warren has filled this Misalliance with odd, diverting choices. Hypatia ("a respectable shopkeeper's daughter, tired of good manners") has a stridency (not to mention voice) that eventually wears thin and makes Percival's interest in her difficult to imagine. Similarly, Marvel's portrayal of Lina is bizarrely aggressive. She barks in so cartoonish a voice that it is a struggle to remember that Shaw has actually provided her with something important to say. Ditto for Zak Orth's  Julius et al. He is quite enjoyable and funny, but his message is finally lost in the cacophonous voice he employs. All three characters are more annoying than they need be, or than Shaw intended.

At the other extreme, the characters of Johnny and Percival fade into the scenery. Alan Tudyk makes Bentley a good wimp, but struggles to convey any further dimension in Bentley's personality. All three seem uncomfortable and miscast.

While Shaw rarely stop being humorous this is not a farce. There are moments of utter seriousness. When they appear, these moments require patience so that the ideas have a chance to simply linger in the air. Warren seems blind to Shaw's seriousness of purpose and has run over them insensitively. The result is an uninspiring and often tone deaf production Even Derek McLane and Catherine Zuber, whose set and costume designs, respectively, are usually outstanding, seem to have done little that could be classed as particularly creative. With a single set consisting of a greenhouse (here peculiarly covered in screen rather than glass), in which the most obvious and distinctive furnishings are the floor to ceiling piles of Tarleton's beloved books, a bit more could have been expected of the sets. (For a set designer whose stock-in-trade is his attention to detail, one can only wonder why this 1906 library was permitted to be stocked with a large number of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, a fact easily observable from the audience.)

It is tempting to guess what Shaw might have thought of this production. I, for one, choose to think he'd say that he predicted it in his "Preface" to Misalliance: "A new sort of laziness will become the bugbear of society: the laziness that refuses to face the mental toil and adventure of making work by inventing new ideas or extending the domain of knowledge, and insists on a ready-made routine."

Could it be Shaw is his own best critic?

by George Bernard Shaw 
Directed by David Warren 
starring Brian Murray with Patricia Conolly, Joanna Going, Elizabeth Marvel, 
Zak Orth, Remak Ramsey, Don Reilly, Sam Robards and Alan Tudyk 
Laura Pels Theatre , Roundabout Theatre Company, 1530 Broadway (212) 869-8400 
Opened August 7, closes October 19, 1997 
Note: Evening performances are at 7:00 or 7:30 PM

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