What a nice surprise to be able to welcome back the lesser known Bernard Shaw play You Never Can Tell. Even its light hearted title suggests that immediately after Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Shaw opted to try something less inflamed. What emerged was clearly an homage (or a satire of) his friend Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest which had hit London’s West End in 1895, two years before the premiere of Shaw’s comedy of manners.
Although its plot is set a year or two later, around the turn of the century, it concerns Mrs. Clandon, a world famous feminist author who’s returned to England with her three grown children after 18 years abroad. The husband she had left appears out of the blue and the play explores how this odd family deals with love, family, money, sex, social and political issues, and the emotional roller coaster of one particular dentist in love. Shaw sprinkles his comical plot with wit and wisdom and wraps it all up rather conveniently by introducing a last minute judge, a deus ex machina who brooks no interruption to his conclusions, which are clean and clear.
This production is by the Pearl, at its own theatre, and the Gingold Theatrical Group. The Pearl has been enlivening the scene in several home bases for the past 30 seasons. It has a company of actors, some of whom have been with it since the start. Robin Leslie Brown, who plays Mrs. Clandon, is just such a one, and she has through the years blossomed into an adroit character actress whose experience shows as she enriches her characterization by adding nuance and insight into her readings of the delicious dialogue with which Shaw has supplied her.
I note that Sheridan’s The Rivals is scheduled at the Pearl for May 2014, and I certainly hope Ms. Browne tackles Mrs. Malaprop. I’ve already begun to chuckle at some of the gems she will have to play with in that one.
Another stalwart of the Pearl is the gifted Sean McNall, who’s been with the company since 2003, proving himself a fine classical actor, who knows his way around knockabout farce as well. In his current role, he is Mr. Valentine, a doctor who was reduced to dentistry because he told his patients the truth, rather than what they wanted to hear. From the moment we meet him, his back to us, his knee up on his dentist’s chair as he yanks out a tooth from his very first patient, we know he’s going to be exactly right. Leading man attractive he might be, but I can see him having a ball with any of Joe Orton’s mad characters or even sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello in The Little Shop of Horrors.
He is matched by Amelia Pedlow as Gloria, Shaw’s spokesperson for the New Woman who is the forerunner for “Major Barbara” whom Shaw will create in a couple of years. Lovely to look at, but capable of the big passions, she has a ten minute knockout of a scene with Mr. McNall in which the witty words come flying at us, tossed by these two excellent actors who hit the mark each time out.
Their scene is only occasionally interrupted by the perpetually annoying teenage siblings of Gloria, twins Philip and Dolly, two shriekers who play farce strictly by the numbers. You can just hear director David Staller telling them things like: “Say the line, turn left, run to the couch and sit”, which is just what they do. Emma Wisnewski is making her off Broadway debut as Dolly; she’s a pretty young actress and her bio tells us she “trained at the Stella Adler Studio.” Had the late great Ms. Adler still been with us, she’d have said to her: “You have all the equipment to have a career my dear, but we haven’t in class arrived yet at words or scene work.” She and Ben Charles, who plays her brother Philip, bellow a lot, and young English turn-of-the-20th century teenagers just didn’t do that. Both youngsters handled their British accents competently, but seasoning is in order.
A key role in this seaside romp is the waiter Walter Bohun, who sees everything, and has some pretty wise comments to make. Often played by a star (Leo G. Carroll played it for a brief run in the 1948 Theatre Guild revival, and Philip Bosco had a success with it in 1986 at the Circle in the Square), here we have Zachary Spicer, a large and appealing actor making his Pearl debut in the role. Mr. Spicer seems always present and always the wise commentator on all matters. I’ll avoid the spoiler, but he’s in there right to the finish, as clearly Mr. Shaw fell for him, as we do, and he was reluctant to send him offstage any more quickly than absolutely necessary (meaning, the play ended).
Credit to David Staller for keeping this soufflé up, for staging some neat transitional moments with dance. Credit too to Harry Feiner and Barbara A. Bell for setting and clothing the production handsomely, even supplying character filled furniture and props.
The late Victorian gowns were knockouts and very right for the ladies who wore them.
This is a beautifully detailed production of a play we don’t see very often, one that has a lot to say even today about the war between the sexes.
You Never Can Tell is onstage until October 13, 2013 at The Pearl Theatre, 555 W. 42nd St, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.