George Bernard Shaw's 'Misalliance' misses the mark at Olney Theatre Center

AT OLNEY: Patricia Hurley as Hypatia and Joe Vincent as Tarleton in a stagnant rendition of George Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance."
AT OLNEY: Patricia Hurley as Hypatia and Joe Vincent as Tarleton in a stagnant rendition of George Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance." (Stan Barouh)

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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 11, 2010

Andrew Lloyd Webber sent a chandelier diving to the stage in "The Phantom of the Opera," the Greeks had gods swan down from the heavens, and in 1909, George Bernard Shaw wrote that midway through his "Misalliance," an airplane should crash into the action.

Make that "inaction," for although the comedy pits classes, genders and (most especially) generations against each other, it's a slippery thing, virtually free of a palpable plot. That kind of Shavian subversion -- denying obvious narrative pleasures, whacking attitudes around, demanding that audiences keep up with the sly to-and-fro -- can be delightful. But Olney Theatre Center's production is numbingly bright and yammering, so the plane crash is a godsend.

Shaw only called for a bit of shattered glass to fall through the conservatory of John Tarleton, the underwear magnate whose lively daughter, Hypatia, is slated to marry a prancing ninny named Bentley Summerhays. (This is misalliance No. 1, of many to follow.) Though it's hardly the last word in theatrical spectacle, John Going's production does better than just sprinkle shards for the aeronautical collapse, which marks the entrance of a Polish acrobat named Lina Szczepanowska.

Lina and the handsome pilot she drops in with, Joseph Percival, shake things up in the staid conservatory, and for a moment, the production comes alive. Actors sit still and lean forward as if they're not sure what they're going to hear next from the strapping, independent Lina (swaggeringly played by Andrea Cirie), whereas before -- and soon after -- the cast acts as if every line is a splendid epigram.

It has frequently been argued that the characters in "Misalliance" (originally dubbed "a debate in one sitting") sound suspiciously like Shaw himself, but of course that's no way to play it. The comedy really is filled with distinctive characters; the buoyant Tarleton and his reserved fellow eminence Lord Summerhays -- Bentley's rueful father -- are woefully humiliated by much younger (and dissimilar) women, for instance. But the dialogue is volleyed with such sterile polish that all hope and pain are abandoned.

Likewise, when a confused working-class radical sneaks into Tarleton's portable Turkish bath to further muddy the parent-child waters, the intrusion doesn't make much of a change. Throughout, Shaw's lines have the capacity to provoke and bruise, prompting intimates to call each other "beast" (for better and for worse). Yet for a gang so caught up in persuasions and reversals, the dynamic seldom shifts from the same high, arid plain.

James Wolk's wide conservatory set almost feels like a stadium; it rises level after level and oddly strands the actors, who scamper busily about the vast room without a lot of purpose. The script rings with some of Shaw's repeated themes -- "Heartbreak House" and "Man and Superman" are among the plays Shavians may find themselves ruminating on -- yet the performance suffers from a rare case of pointless velocity. It's as if the artists aren't utterly sure what to do with this mischievous comedy, so everyone tries to outrun it.

Pressley is a freelance writer.


by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by John Going. Costumes, Liz Covey; lighting, Dennis Parichy; sound design, G.W. Rodriguez. With Dudley Knight, Alex Podulke, Joel Reuben Ganz, Drew Kopas, Anne Stone, Patricia Hurley, Matthew McGloin, Joe Vincent. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Oct. 24 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit

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