George Bernard Shaw's "Candida," as presented by the Olney Theater, has something for nearly everyone: withering wit, human insight, belly laughs and drawing-room sword-play such as haven't graced the stage since the likes of, well, George Bernard Shaw.
There's hardly a thing amiss in this solid production, smartly directed by Leo Brady and acted by some well-rounded performers, led by Barbara Andres in the title role. After a slow start opening night -- during which the actors took their time getting into synch with one another -- the play hit cruising speed and didn't stall again.
The story, in three acts, concerns the day-long battle between two accomplished rhetoricians -- a young, neurotic poet and a middle-aged, self-possessed preacher -- for the affections of Shaw's heroine, the preacher's charming wife. She must choose between these two egomaniacs, who seem more in love with their own words than anything else. For good measure, Shaw throws in some other engaging characters: the preacher's lovesick secretary, his pompous and fawning assistant and his rich and loutish father-in-law.
Andres, a veteran of Broadway and television, is a credible Candida, projecting both warmth and backbone, but also enough flightiness to make her momentous decision suspenseful. Michael Rothhaar as the admiring poet, Eugene Marchbanks, looks a tad too old for a smitten teenager -- Shaw puts his age at 18 -- but he handles the role with aplomb. He shifts from trembling suitor with Candida to sharp-tongued terror with the Rev. James Mavor Morell without ever stripping his gears.
Rothhaar also works well against the muscular materialism of Terrence Currier as the father-in-law: He's the model of fear and loathing, flinging himself into chairs to bury his face in his arms. Against the prim propriety of Debra Cerruti as the secretary, Rothhaar becomes wild and poetic, waving his arms and going down on his knees to draw out her admission that she loves the Reverend Morell.
But some of the best exchanges, brightened by Shaw's biting wit, come between young Marchbanks and the handsome Morell, played by Bernie McInerney with a nice mix of grinning complacency and furrowbrowed vulnerability (though at times he seems unsure of his British accent). The tension between them builds: "Marchbanks, you're making it very difficult for me to control myself," Morell warns. Finally, the preacher's veneer cracks and it's no-holds-barred.
"Sniveling little whelp," Morell hurls at Marchbanks.
"Moralist and windbag," Marchbanks replies in kind.
All this is hugely entertaining, and there's an added bonus in Joseph P. Normile's appearance as Morell's assistant, Lexy Mill. His bushy-tailed stride and squintily-given platitudes, all deflated by pinpricks from Cerruti as the secretary, are consistent laugh-getters.
CANDIDA -- At the Olney Theater through August 29. 924-4485.