No playwright ever liked to hear himself talk as much as George Bernard Shaw did. Opinions, tirades, epigrams, lectures, paradoxes--he gleefully poured them all into the mouths of his characters as if he were a farmer force-feeding a flock of geese. "Misalliance," which opened a four-week run last night at Olney Theatre, is a good example of the intellectual pa te' that can result when actors are neither as nimble nor as committed as old GBS himself.
After a moribund first act, Leo Brady's production picks up some momentum, if never a great deal of e'lan, in its latter stretches. But only hard-core Shavians are apt to find this evening delectable. Others may appreciate anew Liza Doolittle's lament to Henry Higgins: "Words, words, words. I'm so sick of words." Even Shaw himself seems to have anticipated the reaction by having Hypatia Tarleton, the impetuous ingenue of "Misalliance," periodically rue the nonstop chatter and implore the heavens for some action.
Hypatia is the daughter of the prosperous John Tarleton, who has made a killing by manufacturing underwear and now endows public libraries. The ostensible concern of the evening is Hypatia's impending marriage to Bentley Summerhays, a delicate-skinned little snit who routinely throws tantrums to get his way. But when a plane crash-lands in the Tarleton garden, spewing forth a handsome aviator, Hypatia finds a suitor much more to her liking.
That plane is also carrying a Polish acrobat and feminist, who promptly enchants all the men in the Tarleton household. Later, in the second act, Shaw adds to the mix a wimpy little clerk, bearing a gun and seeking vengeance for wrongs done his mother in the distant past. Such incidents of plot, however, are merely a pretext for Shaw to air his views on the gulf between parents and children, socialism, capitalism, imperialism, the soul, the double standard, death, libraries, the Bible, muscles and 101 other topics rattling around in his fertile brain.
In the right hands--or mouths--Shaw's talk becomes a kind of action. Just as a whiff of smelling salts suddenly revives a lethargic body, so his bracing views can galvanize an actor's stance, lend vigor to his torso and animate his features. That is not the case at Olney, or rather it is the case only about half of the time. And since Shaw, like Shakespeare or Moliere, really permits no halfway measures, the production's strengths are continually undermined by its weaknesses.
Peter Vogt's good work as Tarleton--the actor is clearly possessed with that character's "superabundance of vitality"--is rather quickly undone by casting him opposite Teddy Handfield. Handfield looks less his wife than she does his mother and appears no more comfortable with the Shavian dialogue than she would be with a mouth of new teeth.
As Hypatia, who yearns so desperately "to be an active verb," Brigid Cleary is effervescent and flirtatious, a catch just bursting to be caught. But the prospective men in her life take all the fun out of the unconventional courtship. Michael McLeester, as the tantrum-throwing drip, so overplays the role that the muscles in his face threaten to snap, while Nigel Reed, as the dashing aviator, is as bland as a turnip.
Things pick up when John Shuman, the diminutive clerk, scampers into the Tarleton living room, holding a pistol aloft as if it might actually turn around and bite him, and demanding justice in a voice that wants oiling. He's a virtual torrent of Shavian grievances and the actor has converted them into a sharp and quirky characterization. But the other wild eccentric in "Misalliance," the Polish acrobat who feels compelled to put her life on the line at least once a day, is uneasily played by Pat Karpen, relying excessively on an ambiguous pout.
With such mixed blessings all down the line, this "Misalliance" keeps going in and out of focus. The second act pacing may be brisk, but the liveliness is deceptive. True liveliness comes from actors getting caught up in the passion and paradox of ideas and it's largely missing here.
It is fast becoming an unfortunate, but undeniable, fact that Olney, once one of the finest professional summer theaters on the East Coast, is now no more distinguished than a competent community theater. In the fast-receding past, it did splendidly by Brecht, Williams, Pinter and, yes, even Shaw. With "Misalliance," it is merely going through the motions. The heart is gone. The inspiration is drying up. What's left is speechifying.
MISALLIANCE. By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Leo Brady; scenery and lighting, Joseph St. Germain; costumes, Virginia Schwartz; with Peter Vogt, Pat Karpen, Brigid Cleary, Henry Strozier, David Cromwell, Nigel Reed, Teddy Handfield, John Shuman, Michael McLeester. At Olney Theatre through Aug. 21.