The Olney Theatre Center opened its colorful new production of George Bernard Shaw’s rollicking screwball comedy Misalliance this past weekend. We found Saturday evening’s performance visually striking and earnestly performed. But alas, it’s lacking, thus far at least, in the kind of acting necessary to bring this sparkling, argumentative classic fully to life.
Although Misalliance opened in 1910 to decidedly mixed reviews, it’s now regarded as one of Shaw’s stronger efforts. A classic Shavian talkathon, it’s loaded with eccentric and occasionally lovable Edwardian-era characters which tend to make audiences ignore the thinness of its plot. Yet the play remains surprisingly contemporary in tone, a full century after its premiere, loaded as it is with the kind of politics and speechifying that might have been written just yesterday.
The entirety of Misalliance takes place in the sunny conservatory wing of nouveau riche underwear magnate John Tarleton’s palatial mansion. Fancying himself something of a freethinker, Tarleton (Joe Vincent) also regards himself as a philanthropist and something of a self-made scholar, frequently (and tediously) spouting quotations and attributions to emphasize the point, creating the show’s best running gag.
In due course, we meet Tarleton’s family, including his son John Jr. (Joel Reuben Ganz), a thickheaded, practical ancestor of Gordon Gekko; his daughter, Hypatia (Patricia Hurley), an harebrained would-be feminist who’s really just a girl who wants to have fun; and his sober headed wife (Anne Stone).
Complicating matters, Hypatia’s fiancé, the foppish Bentley Summerhays (Matthew McGloin) arrives to annoy everyone, including his elderly father, Lord Summerhays (Dudley Knight) who shows up along with him. The latter hopes for a chance conversation with young Hypatia to whom he’s secretly proposed marriage.
As if the possibilities for endless irritation haven’t already been set in motion, the hyper-bored Hypatia longs for “adventure to drop out of the sky.” Which it eventually does, as an early post-Wright Brothers aeroplane crash-lands in their garden, disgorging the pilot, an adventurous aviator (and friend of Bentley) named Joey Percival (Alex Podulke); and his mysterious passenger, Lina Szczepanowska (Andrea Cirie), a swaggering Polish adventuress, acrobat, and passionate free lover.
Late in the game, and just to keep things outrageous, cockney clerk and dedicated socialist Julius Baker (Drew Kopas) sneaks into the house brandishing a pistol and determined to kill Old Tarleton whom he imagines to have caused the death of his beloved mother.
Come to think of it, you actually don’t need much of a plot with a setup like this. Shaw juggles the whole thing deftly, allowing the old men to gasbag endlessly on the meaning of life, the young men to quarrel among themselves about everything, and all the men (save Gunner) to make fools out of themselves with Hypatia—who’s quite a fool herself—and, when possible, with the challenging Ms. Szczepanowska.
It’s all great fun really, with comic material that’s almost guaranteed to please. Almost.
Like the absurdly hilarious yet carefully crafted drawing-room comedies of fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde, most of Shaw’s oeuvre—especially Misalliance—requires actors who are literally willing to lose themselves in the essence of their characters. Otherwise, this play simply dissolves into a random series of one-liners in search of a laugh track.
As silly and fatuous as Shaw’s characters may be, the audience has to believe in them in order to make the comedy happen, since it’s character rather than plot that drives this play. But during Saturday evening’s performance, at least, this kind of character development was often lacking.
True, the entire cast actually seemed quite genial, capable, and professional. So it’s entirely possible that the production is actually suffering from under-rehearsal blues at this point—a phenomenon not unknown in DC-area opera productions and symphony concerts either where budget concerns and union scale tend to peck away at adequate (and costly) preparation time.
Nonetheless, during Saturday evening’s performance, the actors still seemed to be polishing their blocking, internalizing their lines, and making final decisions as to how their characters should react to this or that provocation. At times, the delivery of lines seemed too stiff, too forced, not natural enough. On other occasions, actors fumbled their lines, particularly Dudley Knight who, ironically, seemed otherwise the very embodiment of Lord Summerhays.
At times, two characters seemed more irritating rather than funny. Whether by his own choice or that of director John Going, Matthew McGloin’s sniveling Bentley came across more like a five-year old brat than a useless upper class drone; while his fiancée Hypatia, as portrayed by Patricia Hurley, acted like a 1930s dumb blonde rather than the frustrated (though somewhat dim), would-be feminist Shaw probably intended her to be. Both characterizations might have settled more comfortably in a half-hour episode of “Fawlty Towers.”
Other characterizations were more successful. While lacking his father’s two-dimensional intellectualism, Joel Reuben Ganz’ John Jr. frequently projected good manly business sense, in spite of the chaos around him—a quality that goes underappreciated in this crowd, of course.
As his father and foil, John Sr., Joe Vincent generally got his blustery, puffed up, yet basically good-hearted paterfamilias character right and seems to have a lot of fun in so doing, particularly when reciting Tarleton’s beloved (and endless) quotations and citations.
In the smaller role of Mrs. Tarleton, Anne Stone radiated that perfect earth-mother measure of common sense, almost reminding one of Mrs. Bridges—the genial cook in the old “Upstairs, Downstairs” Masterpiece Theatre series—whom she physically resembled.
Stronger performances were turned in by Alex Podulke, whose elegant yet oily Joey Percival proves the perfect antidote to Hypatia’s determined romantic shallowness; and by Andrea Cirie, whose bigger-than-life Polish adventuress, Lina Szczepanowska immediately brightens and invigorates the action whenever she appears onstage. Interestingly, both Cirie’s and McGloin’s characters (Lena and Bentley) exist at the edge of extreme. Only Cirie, however, manages to get her recipe down pat. (And her Polish accent, too.)
But the surprise scene-stealer of the evening was Drew Kopas. His blundering, high-decibel Julius brilliantly keyed in on Shaw’s exquisite sense of the outrageous even as he expounded on some of the playwright’s own notoriously socialist views. Technically “outclassed” by every other character onstage, Kopas’ Julius nonetheless displayed greater dignity and integrity, on one level, than any of them—save, perhaps, for Mrs. Tarleton who actually remembers Julius’ mother as she arrives to settle the chaos down.
Kopas’ secret was simple: he had totally internalized his lines and no longer had to think about them. He was completely natural, believed in his character, and just let things rip. The rest of the cast clearly has the same kind of skill. But they rarely let go enough to lose themselves in this dizzy, extended, intellectual sitcom.
There are indeed things to love in this production. Cirie and Kopas always light up the stage with genuine energy when they make an entrance. The single set—an airy yet fussy sunroom designed by James Wolk—is charmingly summery and fresh with only a touch of English fussiness. Liz Covey’s Edwardian costuming is delightful and quite accurate without being overly fussy. And the play’s signature special effect, the crashing aeroplane, occurs in a novel and unexpectedly funny way.
Yet in the end, Saturday’s production was not quite ready for prime time. Successive performances could flow more easily if the actors would spend a bit more time polishing their lines so they can relax and go with the flow. But in the meantime, travel at your own risk.
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by John Going
Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Misalliance plays thru Oct 24, 2010 at Olney Theatre Center, Olney, MD.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.