Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance at the Shaw Festival

Krista Colosimo as Hypatia and Ben Sanders as Bentley Summerhays

Once again, the play to see at the Shaw Festival this year (2012) is one of Shaw’s own.  Misalliance is a great-looking show with a razor-sharp cast that misses none of Shaw’s subtle wit and wisdom.

I couldn’t help thinking that Shaw must have felt pulled in different directions at the point in his career when he wrote this play.  The old socialist obviously wanted his plays to popularize his radical ideas about social welfare, the family, religion, and so on.  But by 1909 he was Britain’s most entertaining playwright.  How much social philosophy can people stand in a play, he must have pondered, before he’d have to insert a joke, a bungling burglar, or a chase scene?

In the “make them laugh” camp is Misalliance’s Johnny Tarleton (Jeff Meadows), a Wodehousian character who reads to escape, not to improve his mind. Johnny has no patience with books that have nothing in them but ideas that the authors keep “worrying, like a cat chasing its own tail.”  Johnny tells the priggish Bentley Summerhays, who likes “improving conversation,” and his father, who likes books with ideas:

I want to forget; and I pay another man to make me forget. If I buy a book or go to the theatre, I want to forget the shop and forget myself from the moment I go in to the moment I come out. Thats what I pay my money for.

Jeff Meadows (in globe) as Johnny Tarleton, Ben Sanders as Bentley Summerhays, and Peter Krantz as Lord Summerhays

I suspect that a lot of folk who buy tickets for Shaw plays at the Shaw Festival resign themselves in advance to having their minds improved.  Shaw is famous for his preachiness.  But on the afternoon I saw it, the audience for Misalliance was pleasantly surprised to find themselves being entertained instead. One of the main reasons was Jeff Meadows, as Johnny Tarleton, jauntily exuding self-confidence like a character out of Wodehouse. Other reasons include Thom Marriott, who plays Johnny’s father, John Tarleton, a supremely self-satisfied and successful manufacturer of underwear, and Peter Krantz, who plays Bentley’s hapless father, Lord Summerhays, and who has (and gets full value out of) many of the play’s best lines.

The story, which takes place all in an afternoon in an English country house, revolves around the love life of Hypatia Tarleton (Krista Colosimo), the sexually frustrated and overripe daughter of the underwear tycoon. Patsy is engaged to Bentley, an undersized crybaby who is disliked by the men but petted by the women. As we learn in one of the play’s best scenes, Lord Summerhays (Peter Krantz) himself had proposed to Patsy before he became aware that she was engaged to his son. As unenthusiastic as Patsy is about Bentley, still less did she want a husband she’d eventually need to nurse.

Krista Colosimo as Hypatia, Catherine McGregor as Mrs. Tarleton, and Jeff Meadows as Johnny Tarleton

From the sky into the Tarletons’ greenhouse crashes an airplane piloted by Joey Percival (Wade Bogert-O’Brien), who is just the sort of manly man for whom Patsy has been pining. With Joey in the plane is Lina Szczepanowska (Tara Rosling), an acrobat who lives for life-endangering thrills and who promptly begins attracting proposals from the men. Compounding the chaos in the second half of the play is the arrival of an intruder (Craig Pike) out to exact revenge on the underwear magnate for his youthful philandering with his mother, formerly a maid in the Tartleton household. The intruder is befriended by Mrs. Tarleton (the delightful Catherine McGregor), who seems both unsurprised and unconcerned to learn that her husband has not been faithful to her.  (In Shaw’s moral code, people ought not to be terribly concerned about sexual infidelity.)

The situations are contrived, but Shaw’s characters are so vivid — in this show, anyway — that we hardly notice. The dialogue is brisk and never stuffy; this is as good as ensemble acting gets.

Although Shaw specified that the scenes in his play take place on May 31, 1909, director Eda Holmes “reset” the play in 1962. We are all too familiar with the deplorable practice of putting Shakespeare plays in “modern” settings (generally, by unimaginative directors, in 1930s Germany), but putting a Shaw play in a different time period is a bit more daring.  In this show, the chief evidences of the play’s “modern” setting is a contemporary-looking set in golds and browns, Chihuly-like glass sculptures, a chair that’s a glass globe suspended by a long chain from the ceiling, characters costumed in 60s styles, and a character who reads  from a 1962 issue of Vogue.

Frankly, we thought the set (designed by Judith Bowden) was smashing. But the problem with giving any older play a “modern” setting is that it instantly creates anachronisms that audience members will think about during the play, instead of the play itself. The slang expressions of 1909 that Shaw put into the mouths of his characters had passed out of use by the 1960s. The women’s issues that are central to Misalliance were very different in the 1960s. And while can well imagine that everyone in a 1909 household would rush outside to look when they heard an “aeroplane,” by 1962 the novelty of flying machines had surely worn off.  Are anachronisms really worth the distraction?

Lennox Robinson’s Drama at Inish at the Shaw Festival

Corrine Koslo as Constance, Ric Reid as hotel proprietor John Twohig, and Peter Krantz as Peter Hurley

(September 2011) It is rare that this writer can’t find something to complain about, but in the case of Drama at Inish, we couldn’t. We loved this gentle, unpretentious comedy and weren’t surprised that it pleased everyone else enough to induce the Shaw Festival to add half a dozen more performances to the original run.

Drama at Inish is a gentle, affectionate satire of Irish provincial people and the troupes of performers that toured through Great Britain during the 1920s. Most of the play’s characters live or work at a hotel in the quiet seaside town of Inish, where proprietor John Twohig has engaged the De La Mare Repertory Company to perform for the summer season in the hotel’s playhouse. The placid John (Ric Reid, in the nicest turn we’d seen from him in a while) and his wife Annie (Donna Belleville) run the hotel with the help of John’s spinster sister Lizzie (Mary Haney), a maid, and a boots.

But things change in Inish when the actor Hector de la Mare (Thom Marriott) and his wife Constance Constantia (Corrine Koslo) arrive at the hotel for their summer run. Their playbill will be different from the low-comedy variety shows and circuses that usually come to Inish; Hector’s traveling troupe plays “serious” theater. As Hector explains (self-importantly) to another guest:

I now confine myself entirely — with the co-operation of Miss Constantia — to psychological and introspective drama. The great plays of Russia, an Ibsen or two, a Strindberg — I think very little of the French.

Mary Haney as Lizzie Twohig and Maggie Blake as Helena

To everyone’s surprise, the people of Inish flock to the playhouse night after night. In short order, they begin to identify all too closely with the heroes and heroines of A Doll’s House and Uncle Vanya and to imagine that they too are caught in the same sorts of tragedies as the heroes and heroines of Ibsen’s and Chekhov’s plays. Lizzie, for example, convinces herself that her life is blighted because a neighbor, Peter Hurley (Peter Krantz, as a delightfully hapless local politician), toyed with her affections by “skylarkin'” with her when they were both young.  John Twohig’s son Eddie (Craig Pike), like a Chekhov character, comes to doubt that life is worth living after he fails, for the dozenth time, to persuade Christine Lambert (Julia Course) to marry him. 

Constance (Corinne Koslo) and Hector (Thom Mariott) never really step out of character

We have enjoyed Mary Haney so much in so many roles at the Shaw that it would be hard to say that the endearing Lizzie Twohig is the one we liked best, but every scene she plays in this play is a treasure.  And Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo, as the well-traveled, impossibly vain, and ever-theatrical leading man and lady, are inexpressibly funny. Hector and Constance live so much in the emotionally overcharged world of their plays that they never really leave it anymore; it’s no wonder that they pull the people of Inish from the real world into theirs.

As traveling actors, Hector and his company follow squarely in the tradition of the Crummleses, the 1830s repertory company affectionately portrayed by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby.  (See this post for some thoughts we had about the Shakespeare actors in Nickleby.)  They also remained us a little of the traveling variety show performers who play so prominently in J. B. Priestley’s novel The Good Companions, which we read just last year.  Hector and Constance are even closer relatives, dramatically speaking, of George and Lily Pepper, the vaudeville pair immortalized by Noël Coward in his wonderful one-act play Red Peppers, which we saw at the Shaw Festival in 2009 (see this post). 

We don’t read the newspaper reviews of Shaw Festival shows very faithfully, although they’re easy to find on the internet, but at least one review we saw suggested patronizingly that Drama at Inish is not a very substantial play and doubted whether it was worth reviving.  Of course, the very premise of Drama at Inish is to poke gentle fun at plays that professional critics do consider substantial!  The themes of Drama at Inish may not be as profound as those in, say, Waiting for Godot or The Glass Menagerie, but its portrayals of human nature, with all the foolishness and vanity and self-absorption to which we are prone, are as true as true can be. That’s an accomplishment, and it’s good enough for us.  Along with the wife of our bosom, we would have liked to have seen it again.

Until the Shaw’s 2011 playbill was announced, we were unfamiliar with the Irish playwright Lennox Robinson, who was a contemporary and colleague of the Irish playwrights Lady Gregory, J. M. Synge, and W. B. Yeats. We were grateful that director Jackie Maxwell did not insist that her actors use authentic, heavy Irish accents, which we would have had trouble understanding, and we hope for more Irish plays at the Shaw Festival.  In the meantime, we were amused to see that one of the plays mocked by Drama at Inish, Ibsen’s masterpiece Hedda Gabler, will be on the playbill at the Shaw in 2012.

Lorne Kennedy as Norrison and Jeff Meadows as Tony Foot

Nothing could make the case for a repertory acting company better than the trio of Drama at Inish, Bernard Shaw’s Candida (which we appreciated at the Shaw Festival earlier this year), and the Shaw’s 2011 one-hour lunchtime play, The President, an inordinately clever play to which we will not devote a separate post. Lorne Kennedy, the star of The President, played the lead role three years ago at the Shaw; we missed the show that year and were grateful to have a second chance to see it. The President is the most concentrated hour of laughs anyone is ever likely to experience, and if the motor-mouthed Mr. Kennedy is still up to this demanding role, we’d gladly see it again in another couple of years. If it’s revived a third time, we trust that Jeff Meadows will also return as Tony Foot, the vulgar New York cab driver that Kennedy transforms into a successful businessman and pillar of society in a mere 60 minutes.