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Review of Misalliance

from the Washington Post
by Peter Marks
October 10, 2003

'Misalliance': A Perfect Crash Landing

BALTIMORE -- The modern age is christened with a bang in Center Stage's exceptional revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance." Into the roof of an English country house slams an early-model airplane, a mishap that not only inflicts significant trauma on a skylight but also concretely establishes the clash at the heart of Shaw's juicy comedy of social upheaval.

As with every other risible twist in the play, the crash is handled with hilarious dexterity by director Irene Lewis and her crack design team. The noise of an approaching plane, expertly approximated by sound designer David Budries, rumbles across the theater; the nose of the aircraft breaks through the ceiling and remains dangling onstage for the entire second act.

The accident is traditionally an opportunity for a virtuoso bit of stagecraft in "Misalliance"; it can also seem gimmicky and overwhelm the play. It's a measure of this production's agility that the plane's flight path goes so wrong so rightly. In virtually every way, in fact, this "Misalliance" has been engineered for success, from Tony Straiges's splendidly sunny rendering of an Edwardian conservatory to the solidly comic performances of an ensemble that gives Shaw's memorable epigrams the crisp timing they require. It is all, to borrow a phrase, positively spiffing.

The plane drops out of the sky as a kind of visitor from the future as Shaw imagined it back at the time of the play's opening in 1910, when air travel was the new thing. The crash throws into turmoil the tranquil, orderly household of John Tarleton (Peter Van Norden), a pillar of 19th-century commerce -- undergarments are his line -- and offers a hint of the brassier, mechanized age that is about to transform everything.

More to the point, the arrival of this new era augurs a fundamental shift in the social order -- the metier of "Misalliance." The play is aswirl with 20th-centuryisms like feminism and socialism, as embodied by the various characters: There is, for instance, a young woman, Tarleton's daughter Hypatia (Stacy Ross), who yearns to be free of the rigid social structure that confines her to the role of hothouse flower. Also on hand is an embittered, gun-toting, young working stiff (Carson Elrod), who holds nothing so dear as the dream of tearing down the oppressive capitalist hierarchy.

This play of ideas -- sexual, economic, scientific -- posits an Old World governed by convention that, like the Tarletons' ceiling, is cracking up.

Though Shaw is often accused of windiness, Lewis's fluid production demonstrates that in the right hands his language can feel more modern than some contemporary writers'. When you listen to Tarleton making the case for the rights of older women to cosmetically alter their appearance to look younger, he sounds as if he's speaking from the offices of a Park Avenue plastic surgeon. And when the Polish aviatrix with the mouthful of a name, Lina Szczepanowska (Natalija Nogulich), expounds on her risk-taking, libertine lifestyle, her words might have been lifted from an article in Ms. or Vogue.

Shaw's original idea for the title of "Misalliance" -- "Just Exactly Nothing" -- suggests the playwright wondered whether this was all drivel. "If you want to argue," a character declares early on, "go over to the Congregationalist minister's." Shaw, in fact, reserves the nastiest portrait for the play's most cerebral character, Bentley Summerhays (Andrew Weems), a weak, whiny crybaby. Yet it's a mistake to think that the play is about everything and nothing. The long underrated "Misalliance" is no dreary polemic.

In the Center Stage incarnation, it's a hardy, heady situation comedy with an array of provocative types who, delightfully, live to get under one another's skins.

The characters are models of hypocrisy -- they're what they seem, and the opposite, too. "Paradoxes are the only truths," Tarleton remarks prophetically. He's as much of a paradox as the others, a salesman with the pretensions of a philosopher and proclivities of a Hugh Hefner. Van Norden makes a wonderfully exotic Tarleton, quoting Chesterton with the same glint in the eye he flashes when a beautiful young thing crosses his path. As his old friend Lord Summerhays, George Morfogen, finds both the mournful rectitude and the inextinguishable wild side of the man, who like his son Bentley is in love with Hypatia. Weems is irritatingly spot-on as Bentley, whose ill-fated engagement to Hypatia gives the play its title.

Much of the action revolves around, well, almost exactly nothing: the pursuit by various men of Hypatia -- played by Ross with equal parts rose petals and iron -- and the magical effect that Lina has on the assorted guests and family members. Nogulich's Lina is the sexiest I've ever encountered, and it makes of the character the femme fatale she ideally is meant to be. Trent Dawson and Eric Sheffer Stevens are excellent as upstart members, one middle class and one upper class, of the ascendant generation. Patricia O'Connell brings a sly survivor's wit to Tarleton's long-suffering wife.

Threatening to hijack the whole shebang is Elrod's pathetic Julius Baker (aka Gunner), an office cashier who for obscure reasons sneaks into the house to shoot Tarleton and wilts uproariously in the torrent of words (and tumbler of gin) he encounters. The poker-faced Elrod delivers a marvelous physical performance, the sort that marks an actor with comedy in his DNA.

Candice Donnelly dresses them all terrifically, especially Lina in her sparkly circus tights. Under Lewis's Big Top, the Shavian carnival is open for business, in all its riotous glory.

Misalliance, by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Irene Lewis. Lighting, Mimi Jordan Sherin; speech consultant, Wendy Waterman. Approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Nov. 3 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Call 410-332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org.

 

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