I find a lot of the early-to-mid 20th century British comedies to be long on comedy and short on ideas; they tend to be full of sparkling language and quotable, chuckle-inducing bon mots, but everything gets wrapped up in a pretty bow that’s all surface tension with no real thought behind it. Shaw’s never been that kind of writer, though; there’s always scandal and social upheaval right there up front or just under the surface. And there’s a lot to like about “Misalliance,” playing at Princeton Summer Theater through Sunday, August 1. The trouble is that this play is the inverse of the above formula: long on delicious ideas (and length in general), but a little on the short side when it comes to genuine laughter.
You’ve got all the staples of your standard English country comedy: the play is set on a single day in May, 1909, at the greenhouse of a country estate in Surrey, which, in an interesting yet unexplained design decision, is filled with curios and props of all sorts. The estate is owned by a working-class gentleman turned successful underwear merchant (Bradley Wilson), who lives with his wife ((Dominique Salerno), and their two grown children. Their kids appear to fall into neat little boxes at first — Johnny (Shawn Fennell) has a little bit of the dumb jock about him, and Hypatia (Veronica Siverd) is both a cultured young lady and chafing at the boundaries in which society has placed her. From this point, it looks like we might get something that looks like a Jane Austen novel.
We don’t. Over the course of the evening’s near-three hour length, plot points are revealed and hinged around a series of visitors, expected and otherwise. Lord Summerhays (Andy Linz) shows up, preceded by his developmentally arrested dilettante of a son, Bentley (Daniel Rattner), who happens to be Hypatia’s fiance. On the uninvited front we have a pair of adventurers who drop in via plane crash. Yes, you read that right. A plane crash ends act one. The two characters added are Bentley’s boarding school chum and pilo, Joey Percival (Ben Taub, full of Dudley Doright-esque charm) and the real winner of the evening’s entertainment, Lina Szczepanowska (Rebecca Foresman), a Polish acrobatess and daredevil who steals the heart of every man she meets with her aggressive charm and eyebrow-raising S&M gymnastic antics. There’s also a gunman (the genuinely funny and charming Tyler Weaks) hiding in a Turkish bath, ready to murder the family patriarch.
So, quick checklist: British wealth, garden drama, English lords, adventuresome young lady, plane crash, Polish acrobat, action-hero pilot, acerbic dilettante, Turkish bath, gun wielding maniac. On those items alone, I’d be sold for the madcap adventure one expects when these elements are all put into play.
The disappointment comes in that the final product is so much less interesting than the parts that comprise it. Shaw avoided head-on scorn from critics in his day by dubbing “Misalliance” a “debate” instead of a play. And I can see what he was trying to do — there are a lot of heady ideas afoot, as each character transforms into a mouthpiece for a different perspective. We get treatises on the nature of male and female power, the plight of the working-class man, the sanctity of marriage, the ridiculousness of marriage, age-appropriate courtship, foreign policy, the pros and cons of socialism, masculinity, and even proper airplane repair and maintenance. But it all feels unfocused, as if a shotgun were loaded with all of the hotbutton issues of Shaw’s time and just fired at the stage.
The company does the best they can with it, and there are certainly standouts. Siverd is charming and in firm control as Hypatia, and a surprising relationship revelation concerning her is one of the evening’s true juicy bits of repartee and surprise. Rebecca Foresman is the true scene-stealer of the play, as Lena is both a delight and a much needed firecracker of energy and verve.
Ultimately, I find “Misalliance” puzzling as a selection for PST’s summer season. It’s a play that requires more than half the able cast to play roles outside their normal age ranges. What has the potential to be an ambitious theater selection ultimately has its suspension of disbelief removed the moment we see age makeup on the young actors. It becomes an ambitious college theater selection instead, and the clear and present talents of this company deserve better.
While there are dazzling moments and spirited conversations throughout, it’s a tough evening to sit through, especially in the increasingly-hot Hamilton Murray Theater, where a choice has to be made between making sure the actors are audible and running the AC consistently. PST has chosen the former, and the theater reaches uncomfortable levels of warmth by the evening’s end. Which is a shame; there’s fun and zany moments of joy and laughter near the play’s conclusion, that are unfortunately snuffed out by the uncomfortably hot audience.
“Misalliance,” Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater. Through Sunday, August 1. George Bernard Shaw classic. $16. 609-258-7062 or www.princetonsummertheater.org.