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A CurtainUp Review

I'm fed up with respectability. I want to be an active verb—Hypatia
Dan Daily, Sean McNall (background) Lee Stark
(Photo: Sam Hough
Bernard Shaw once declared that plot is the curse of serious drama. In Misalliance he wrestled down that curse. But isn't it a comedy rather than a serious drama, and a somewhat farcical one at that? Indeed it is. But, falling within the Shavian rubric known as "discussion plays" it's also bursting with serious ideas which he happend to deliver within the framework of a madcap afternoon in the life of John Tarleton, a nouveau rich businessman and his family. Instead of a plot we have a situation: A weekend visit to the Tarleton home by the aristocratic Lord Summerhays and his son Bentley. It is John Tarleton's view of the engagement of his spirited daughtor Hypatia to the smart but wimpy young aristocrat that accounts for the title and is at the heart of a multi-faceted debate (the play variously subtitled as A Debate and A Debate In One Sitting).

While not considered one of Shaw's major works, Misalliance offers enough everl relevant Shavian quips about politics, women, marriage, the relations between parents and children to fill the better part of a quotation book. When staged well and cast with the right actors, it's still great fun. The production now at the Pearl Theater Company's new home at City Center's Stage II meets those qualifications. The Pearl, which has proved its affinity for Shaw several times (Widowers' Houses, Heartbreak House, Candida) does so again with this handsomely staged revival featuring a number of the Pearl's favorite resident actors as well as several guest artists.

Except for a rather slow start, Jeff Steitzer's Pearl directing debut is notable for animating the verbal excesses and making the most of the funniest bits of business. Consequently the close to 3 hours (to be exact: 2 hours and 45 minutes including one intermission) seem livelier and faster than many a modern play timed for today's theater goers' short attention spans.

The production goes into high gear with the arrival of Dan Daily's John Tarleton, a successful underwear entrepreneur and devoted bibliophile. Daily is the very model of the somewhat uncouth, self-made millionaire. He is a fountain of opinions, that spills over with enthusiasm for life. He's also the play's shrewdest dissector of the Edwardian mores that, like the Edwardian drawing room comedies which Shaw disavowed with this play, are about to give way to a new order

There are juicy acting opportunities for everyone else on stage. As Tarleton's aristocratic counterpart, Lord Summerhays, Dominic Cuskern plays the widowed and no longer politically active aristocrat with just the right mix of stiff upper lip British propriety to make us laugh at his succumbing to the charms of Hypatia (an extremely pretty and aptly spirited Lee Stark) and yet sympathize with his cringing at the way the unfeeling young woman treats him.

Robin Leslie Brown plays Mrs. Tarleton displaying the dignity of her elevated station in life even as she remains unimpressed by the more high-born folks into whose society she's now accepted. While she's willing to accept Bentley Summerhays as a son-in-law if Hypatia wants him she considers him overbred, "like one of those expensive little dogs." Yet when Hypatia says she's marrying Bentley because he's the best of the uninteresting choices available to her she sees that her daughter, for all her wealth and social advantages has fewer choices than she had because she was poor ("and there are so many more poor men than rich ones"),

Though Bradford Cover and Steven Boyer are the actors who are the actors stuck with that sluggish beginning, both do well as the sons of powerful men — Cover as Johnny Tarleton, the practical unappreciated son keeping the family underwear business going while its founder busies himself with good causes and more intellectual pursuits; Boyer as the book-smart, effete and immature last born son of a man who spent years as an administrator of one of Britain's holdings in India.

But to keep us engaged in all the talk, no matter how witty, something more is needed and so Shaw opted to grant Hypatia's longing for something to drop out of the sky to bring an end to the dull respectability of her life and allow her "to be an active verb." He does so by having an airplane crash into the Tarleton greenhouse, with its society pilot Joey Percival ( Michael Brusasco) and a passenger/assistant pilot who turns out to be a strong-minded Polish acrobat named Lina Szczepanowska (Erika Rolfsrud overplaying the dominatrix angle with forgivable charm).

The use of an airplane, still regarded as a new fangled machine in 1909, to transfrom the all talk and no action garden party into farcical mayhem, sybolizes Shaw's view of the stagnant Edwardian era having to give way to a more modern social milieu. The tall, dark and handsome pilot stirs Hypatia's instincts as a woman not afraid to go after what she wants but the real new woman is the acrobatic adventurer with the unpronouceable name. She's the opposite of the type of conforming woman most men at that time mis-allied with even though deep down they were attracted to more vivid and independent women. Small wonder then that Lina captivates all the men and transforms Bentley with a muscle and courage building makeover.

As if the plane crash wasn't enough, a third outsider listed in the program as The Man but later referred to as Gunner (Sean McNall) arrives at the Tarleton home. His entrance is on foot but also dramatic as he's ominously dressed from head to toe in black and is waving a gun. He turns out to be an unhappy, underpaid clerk who intends to shoot himself after killing John Tarleton to avenge a long ago dalliance with his mother. However, this shift to a broader political theme doesn't really shift from comic to serious drama for the gunman's anger comes with an ironic twist: he got all his progressive political ideas from books read in one of the free libraries endowed by his intended victim. This allows Sean McNall to have a wonderful time playing the gunman with hilarious, over-the-top brio.

Thanks to Dudley Knight's dialect direction all the actors (except the Polish Lina, of course) speak with the right English accents. Set designer Bill Clarke has created a most inviting country house sun parlor and Liz Covey has dressed the Tarletons and Summerhays as if to the Edwardian manner born. For Lina and Joey she's provided smart fly suits and the gunner is in head to toe black to match his mental state.

Misalliance is usually listed as being the second of Shaw's discussion plays — after Getting Married (1908) and before Fanny's First Play (1911), his focus on this genre actually began with the last part of Major Barbara. However, the inspiration for the play was inspired by and a response to his friend and colleague Harley Granville-Barker's The Madras House. Granville-Barker who was also a producer, put on both plays (neither one was a success) and added a line to his in which a character mentions going to have lunch with his friend Tarleton. For more about Bernard Shaw and his work, and more of Misalliance's many quotable quips, check out the Shaw Backgrounder that's part of Curtainup's Author's Album

Misalliance by Bernard Shaw
Directed by Jeff Steitzer
Cast: Steven Boyer (Bentley Summerhays), Michael Brusasco (Joey Percival), Robin Leslie Brown (Mrs. Tarleton), Dominic Cuskern (Lord Summerhays), Bradford Cover (Johnny Tarleton), Dan Daily (Mr. Tarleton), Sean McNall (Gunner), Erika Rolfsrud (Lina Szczepanowska), Lee Stark (Hypatia Tarleton).
Scenic Design: Bill Clarke
Costumes: Liz Covey
Lighting: Stephen Petrilli
Sound: Jane Shaw
Fight direction: Rod Kinter
Dialect direction: Dudley Knight
Stage Manager: Dale Smallwood
Running Time: 2 ours and 45 minutes, including one intermission
Pearl Theater at City Center Stage 2, West 55th Street
Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30PM; Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2:30PM.
From 12/04/09; opening 12/13/09; closing 1/24/10.
$40 on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; $50 on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Youth and Senior Tickets: $20 weekdays and $25 weekends. Remaining tickets at each performance can be purchased at a reduced price by individuals 30 and younger or 65 and older on the day of performance, up to one hour prior to curtain, subject to availability.
Thursday Rush Tickets up to one hour before curtain, subject to availability at the box office.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at December 11th press performance
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