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A CurtainUp Review

You Never Can Tell
Les Gutman
There is a character in You Never Can Tell, Dolly (Catherine Kellner), whose most salient characteristic is that she asks too many questions. Better that she is on the stage than in the audience.

This is George Bernard Shaw at his most far-fetched and least significant. But his wit is intact, and that's all that's really required to make for a satisfying experience. By its own terms, it is "the long arm of coincidence" that's celebrated here. After we stop laughing at what Shaw has to say, we can laugh at what he has concocted.

The fatherless Clandon clan has returned to the fin de siècle coast of Devon after eighteen years in Madeira. The matriarch of the family (Helen Carey) is accompanied by her striking, seemingly obedient elder daughter, Gloria (Katie Finneran), and her two endearing brats, Dolly and Philip (Saxon Palmer). Dolly's appointment with the local dentist, Valentine (Robert Sean Leonard), somehow results in a family luncheon to which Valentine and, by chance, his Scroogian landlord, Crampton (Simon Jones), are invited. (This is obviously a period piece: the dentist is poor.)

Before bread is broken, some "chemistry" between Valentine and Gloria materializes and we discover that Mrs. Clandon is actually Mrs. Crampton eighteen years later. Mrs. C., a self-anointed expert on the coming century who doesn't always live by her own advice, continues to loathe her ex-husband who, for his part, is appalled by the deportment of his erstwhile children. The voice of reason is supplied by a waiter, whose lawyer son, Bohun (Jere Shea), coincidentally of course, is brought in to resolve the pending disputes between the various factions of the Crampton/Clandons.
 It's not that Shaw has avoided socio-politics in this play (he does address everything from gunneries to feminism to the Church of England), he just doesn't take "the issues" very seriously. Add a top ten list and you'd have a turn-of-the-century installment of David Letterman.

This well-paced, playful production boasts excellent work by director Nicholas Martin, who misses few opportunities for either humor or charm, as well as exceptionally fine designs. Allen Moyer opens the play with a perfect Victorian dental office which then makes way for a cheerful but elegant seaside hotel. With its bright blue and white motif, the hotel terrace evokes late summer resort life beautifully. Costumes are equally apt, even if the early New York summer heat makes the fussy late-summer Victorian garb almost painful to witness. Spirited music, supplied by Mark Bennett, provides suitable introductions and interludes.

What crowns this production, however, is the acting. There are no weak links, but Robert Sean Leonard's performance is so well rendered, and so defining to the overall production, that it warrants being placed on a pedestal. He milks the role for every ounce of its humor without ever becoming the joke, and he does not let his position obscure his personality. He walks a tight rope between leading man and tyro. As the object of his attention, Katie Finneran is also excellent, walking in and out of her mother's shadow as it is cast at the cusp of a new century about which she professes to know so much.

Helen Carey is fine, although her role never seems to take on any special meaning. (Perhaps it is because Carey usually uncovers greater depth that its absence is so noticeable here.) The two younger children, whose antics seem all the more outrageous because they are cast older than one would anticipate, perform with unrestrained frolic. Kellner nonetheless does not miscarry the wisdom behind Dolly's gaity. Simon Jones is also right on target in his portrayal of Crampton, a complicated man who has learned to do "kind things in an unkind way."

Shaw has written two other plum roles into this play, the waiter father and his lawyer son. The former comes close to serving as the play's narrator, getting to repeat its titular theme on several occasions. It's a role that can control the show in the right hands. (Philip Bosco is said to have accomplished this in the last New York revival, in 1986). Charles Keating is not quite so forceful, but he accomplishes just as much. One could not ask for anything more appropriate. On the other hand, Jere Shea, bedecked in shiny patent leather contrasting sharply with the play's otherwise matte finish, goes all out. He gives a flamboyantly affected reading to his role, which is precisely what Shaw's splendid lines beg for.

Few would call this one of Shaw's most brilliant offerings. But fewer still could match it.

by George Bernard Shaw 
Directed by Nicholas Martin 
with Helen Carey, Simon Jones, Charles Keating, Robert Sean Leonard, Katie Finneran, Catherine Kellner, Nicholas Kepros, Saxon Palmer, Jere Shea and 3 others 
Set Design: Allen Moyer 
Costume Design: Michael Krass 
Lighting Design: Frances Aronson 
Sound Design and Original Music: Mark Bennett 
Roundabout Laura Pels Theatre, 1530 Broadway (@ 45th Street) (212) 719 - 1300 
opened June 21 closes September 13, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman June 25, 1998

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