The capacity opening night audience at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey responded with an enthusiasm to George Bernard Shaw’s “Misalliance” that was not only well deserved but almost deliberately intended to say thank you for bringing back this gem after an absence of more than 40 years.
Although my own experience with this brilliantly witty, unabashedly farcical comedy includes a memory of a very fine Roundabout Theater production in the early 1980s, I know that I wasn’t quite prepared to laugh so unashamedly aloud as I did watching this first-rate company go through their humorously executed pretensions and paces under the direction of STNJ artistic associate Stephen Brown-Fried. This director, who recently earned plaudits as the director of the National Asian American Theater Company (NAATCO) production of Clifford Odet’s “Awake and Sing” at the Public Theater, has both cornered and captured the rascally heart of this irrevocably clever play.
Certainly not as popular or as oft revived as his “Pygmalion” or “Major Barbara,” “Misalliance” nevertheless is populated with Shaw’s most paradoxical characters. Their demonstrably expressed ideas, if not necessarily the conflicting motives behind them, insure them a physical as well as a verbal workout. To be honest, there are sporadic lags during the course of almost three hours spent in their company when the talky-testy characters appear to be enjoying the sound of their speech-ifying to the point of losing their point.
But you will surely get a kick, as I did, watching how a well-heeled Edwardian-era family indulges and exercises their rebellious instincts and obstinate natures in the light of the family patriarch, John Tarleton, a hugely successful underwear tycoon. And what a blinding light he is, as played by a hilariously bellicose Ames Adamson, whose comedic posturing is in full support of the youthful image that he admits he can no longer see in the mirror.
A bit paunchy in his spiffy three-piece suit, his stylish mustache, bright blue eyes, and ruddy complexion, John continues to see himself as a romantic adventurer but primarily as “a man of ideas.” His ideas, both foolish and formidable, are spewed willy-nilly to all who would listen and even to those who would prefer not to, in and around the confines of the solarium in his country home in Surrey, England.
But John, an ardent reader who pleasures in quoting his favorite authors — Dickens, Ibsen etc. — is only one of the play’s nine characters. The others include immediate family members, suitors, and guests, those invited, those invasive, and those who just drop in from the sky — literally — who have plenty to say on just about any subject. They are all a lively and enlivening self-serving bunch who also reflect Shaw’s views on capitalism, socialism, feminism, the haves and have-nots, parenting, rebellious children, marriage, and romantic dalliances.
More to Shaw’s credit, the characters reveal themselves as delightfully real and robust, with John’s pretty daughter Hypatia as the most provocative. This “glorious young beast” is played by a disarming Katie Fabel, who flagrantly flirts with Joey Percival (a vitality-driven performance by Robbie Simpson), the handsome downed pilot suddenly plummeted into their midst. She does this unapologetically in the company of Bentley Summerhays (Matthew Sherbach), the incorrigibly meek and incriminatingly mincing young man with whom she is betrothed but who also turns out to be Joey’s best friend. A flitting, limp-wristed Sherbach is a comedic match for Adamson as a contrasting image of the male species.
While the plot is hardly worth noting, some themes comes to the fore such as the importance of family values, the constraints of the British class system, and morality of the May-December romance between Hypatia and Bentley’s father, Lord Summerhays (a composed and stately performance by Jonathan Gillard Daly). Of course we are showered by words and more words, epigrams, and bon mots as the characters debate, denounce, deride, and romance each other, but who also discover who they are and what they really want before falling into a misalliance.
Considerable credit is due to Brown-Fried for his fearless, free-wheeling approach to a play that could easily drown in its own polemics. The actors have all responded with a unity of playfulness and of common purpose. Of the more demonstrative there is the tall and limber Caralyn Kozlowski as the admonishing, barn-storming aviator cum acrobat, most notable for her prowess as a seductress. Also bravo to a terrific Matt Kleckner as the out-for-blood Gunner, the home-invading (hiding in a portable Turkish bath) pistol-wielding radical. A highlight is his lengthy rage and revenge-fueled diatribe that devolves in minutes into a whimpering, whiskey-induced, remorseful confessional.
We feel just a bit of remorse for the wisely persevering Mrs. Tarleton (a warm and winning performance by Erika Rolfsrud) who stands by her man. More inclined toward respectability and normalcy in the midst of all the windy pontificating is Hypatia’s brother Johnny who, as played with an effortless sense of superiority by Brian Cade, intentionally points the way to his sister’s closing line of the play: “I suppose there is nothing more to be said.”
Well, yes there is: Set designer Brian Clinnin’s glass-enclosed solarium with its wicker furnishings and the center island of plants are a lovely sight as is the outside view of hydrangea bushes. The Edwardian costumes designed by Tilly Grimes, in particularly Hypatia’s peach and pink lace embroidered dress, are another visual treat. However, there is no retreat from the treat of the words that ultimately dominate, prevail, and define “Misalliance.”
Misalliance, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Avenue (at Lancaster Road), Madison. Through Sunday, August 30. $32 to $62. 973-408-5600 or www.ShakespeareNJ.org.