As soon as it dawns on Jack Tanner, the radical-minded bachelor in "Man and Superman," that the determined young ward entrusted to his care actually wants to marry him, he does what any eligible Englishman fearing for his bachelorhood would do. He climbs into his roadster and heads for the Continent, as fast as the shiny vehicle will take him, which -- this being just after the turn of the century -- is 84 miles per hour.
In fact, that is precisely how the second act of George Bernard Shaw's intoxicating four-act comedy ends: Tanner, in the ingratiating person of Francois de la Giroday, hasn't even bothered to put on his motoring gloves. They're in his mouth. He is clutching the steering wheel and leaning into the windshield, an expression of sheer windswept panic flooding his face. The look alone is enough to suggest that he will have the roadster up to the greatest possible speed in the shortest possible time and hang the stop signs.
I mention the moment because it contains, I think, the secret of what is an adroit and thoroughly entertaining revival of Shaw's play. For all the ideas spilling over from one act to the next, for all the arguments about marriage and society and politics and money and heaven, for all the percolating talk, "Man and Superman" is about a chase. Director Douglas C. Wager never lets his actors forget it.
That deliciously headstrong ward, Ann Whitefield (Harriet Harris), simply won't take no for an answer. Oh, she listens to others most dutifully, but her dark eyes betray her. They're as enigmatic as a cat's. And like a cat, you know she's going to end up doing just what she wants to. Shaw would have us believe that she is in the grip of "the life force," an irresistible urge that compels Woman to search out and mate with the ideal man, thereby improving the species and paving the way for a race of supermen. Shavian philosophy, however, has not been allowed to impede the dynamics of what is a hot pursuit. The evening's intellectal conceits may spring from lively minds, but at Arena those minds are firmly attached to bodies that dart and wriggle on their way to the inevitable marriage altar. Thought and flesh are very much one.
This production makes a rare detour by including the third-act dream sequence, "Don Juan in Hell," which represents the philosophical core of "Man and Superman" and is generally performed on its own. But verbose as the interlude is, Wager also keeps it surprisingly lively. In that, he is vastly abetted by Richard Bauer, as a cloven-footed Devil, who looks suspiciously like Shaw himself; and by set designer Adrianne Lobel's view of hell as an elegant, albeit smoke-filled, pit, with all the amenities of a European salon, including flambe' desserts and vintage brandy. It is here that Tanner (who in the dream has assumed the identity of Don Juan, his distant ancestor) turns Descartes' dictum "I think, therefore I am" into the quintessential Shavian proposition: "I am, therefore I think."
The flip-flop is significant. The characters in "Man and Superman" can't help thinking. It's one of their vital functions, like breathing. Even the stuff pots are vigorous stuff pots. You only have to watch Mark Hammer, as Roebuck Ramsden, erupting with all the blustery indignation he feels toward Tanner and his radical essays. Ramsden can't get the words out quickly enough, so he resorts to second best: dashing Tanner's "Revolutionist's Handbook" into the wastebasket, as if he were consigning it to hell.
Ann's mother (June Hansen) may be utterly incapable of controlling her daughter, but she, too, has a mission: making her parental helplessness clear to others, lest she take the rap for her offspring's sweet machinations. Or consider that dreamy poet Octavius (John Leonard). He'd like nothing better than to marry Ann, who, alas, considers his kind -- the romantic man -- an inferior and outmoded embodiment of the species. Mustering all the heartfelt rhetoric at his command to persuade her otherwise, Octavius invariably defeats himself by dissolving into a puddle of tears.
Shaw relished contradictions and paradoxes; "Don Juan in Hell" is as much an argument with himself as it is a debate among four table companions with eternity on their hands. What Wager and his cast have done is translate those contradictions into the idiosyncrasies of human behavior itself. You can quibble with parts of the production. The "Don Juan" segment is as close to spoken opera as the theater gets, and the Arena voices don't always rise to its demands. Katherine Leask, as a level-headed Englishwoman out to marry for money, doesn't hit her stride until the final moments of the play, which takes some of the fun out of the principal subplot. But the whole remains iridescently alive.
That last act takes place in a park in Granada, Spain, for which Lobel has provided beds of blissfully blooming roses and formal walkways, neatly laid out around a central fountain. Ann has her prey, if not in a corner, in a maze. Still keeping his distance, still protesting vociferously, Tanner skitters up and down the alleyways. And then, all of a sudden, he finds himself tramping deliriously through the roses -- spent, surprised, giddy . . . caught.
It's a sublime conclusion to a production that by the clock runs nearly 3 3/4 hours. With such an abundance of delights, time passes posthaste.
MAN AND SUPERMAN. By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Douglas C. Wager; sets, Adrianne Lobel; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman; lighting, Paul Gallo. With Mark Hammer, John Leonard, Francois de la Giroday, Harriet Harris, June Hansen, Katherine Leask, Henry Strozier, Richard Bauer, Terrence Currier. At Arena Stage through Feb. 17.