Here's a lesson for any playwright: George Bernard Shaw tossed the third act of an early play, "The Philanderer," on the advice of a leading actress. She told him it was "too radical" to be produced in the commercial theater of 1893. So Shaw wrote a more palatable ending to his comedy of sexual mores, and for his trouble waited another 12 years before any producer would touch it.
Did the new final act succeed where the first one failed? You can judge for yourself: The Washington Stage Guild's production of "The Philanderer" uses both versions. Following the model of the Hampstead Theatre in London, which produced a four-act "Philanderer" in 1991, director John MacDonald presents Shaw's original third act as the finale. Under his staging, the play emerges as a deliciously witty satire with a darkly ironic ending. (As one character observes, "I cut my morals to fit my interests, in true British fashion.") And despite its years -- and Shaw's propensity for wordiness -- "The Philanderer" resonates in this age of marital uncertainty.
The first three acts of this production concern the efforts of one Leonard Charteris (Jason Stiles), philosopher and cad, to discard one woman in favor of another. Charteris wishes to marry the widow Grace Tranfield (Kathleen Coons), but to do so he must first find a husband for Julia Craven (Tricia McCauley). In contrast to Julia, Grace is a woman of "advanced views," meaning she engages in none of the histrionics that her rival employs in a frantic effort to retain Charteris's interest.
All three are members of the Ibsen Club, which accepts only "unwomanly women" and "unmanly men" -- those who eschew the traditional sex roles in favor of more egalitarian approaches to life and love. Thus, Charteris is prevented from acting chivalrously toward either lady, and Grace threatens Julia with expulsion for becoming emotionally overwrought.
"The Philanderer" is vintage Shaw, who, as his fans well know, often used drama as a pretense for his own ruminations on a variety of social ills. Thus his characters engage in lengthy soliloquies on such subjects as vivisection, vegetarianism, the emancipation of women, socially constructed sex roles, antiquated divorce laws and the like.
If contemporary audiences accustomed to a more spare approach to dialogue find Shaw's excess a bit taxing here, it is not through any fault of the director or performers. For amid all the chatter, MacDonald maintains an impressive sense of forward motion by investing even the windiest of speeches with purposefulness. And while he has cast mostly young actors -- some of whom are probably too young -- he nevertheless extracts several finely drawn performances.
The chief delight of the play, however, is the presence of two old pros, Conrad Feininger as the mercurial Col. Craven, and Bill Hamlin as Grace's father, Joseph Cuthbertson, a theater critic whose vast knowledge of just about everything -- including the divorce laws in South Dakota -- makes him the answer man for the morally compromised Charteris.
Hamlin and Feininger effectively anchor the play, for they seem especially at ease with Shaw's text, and both reveal a delightful mastery of the pregnant pause. Some of the funniest moments are those in which Feininger and Hamlin spar, but easily the best bit is when Craven, discovering that he's been the victim of a misdiagnosis, lets loose with one of Shaw's fuming speeches about the ills of self-restraint. ("Confound it, do you realize what you've done? You've cut off my meat and drink for a year! Made me an object of scorn! A miserable vegetarian and teetotaler!") On the page, the words are wry but not all that provocative. From Feininger's lips, they elicit explosive laughter.
All of this plays out on an understated set by Carl F. Gudenius and Jason Mann that, while lacking the ornate details that characterized the Victorian period, nevertheless evokes the time and place effectively. Married with William Pucilowsky's colorful period costumes, the setting of "The Philanderer" lends interest and depth to the play without distracting from its principal concern, which is, of course, to create a forum for Shaw the social critic.
The Philanderer, by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by John MacDonald. With Steven Carpenter and Cody Lindquist. Sound, Daniel Schrader; lighting, Marianne Meadows; fight choreography, John Gurski. Through April 6 at the Washington Stage Guild, performing at 1901 14th St. NW. Approximately 2 hours 50 minutes. Call 240-582-0050.