After two unrewarding struggles to revive mediocre plays, the Harvard Summer Players have finally brought to the Main Stage a play of significance and value. And while not always successful in meeting the challenge of Shavian dialogue, they have succeeded in producing a Man and Superman that is often very funny, if not always thoughtful.
By including the Don Juan in Hell scene it would seem that Director Joseph Everingham was striving for a philosophical reading of the play. But while concerned with Shaw's thought, Everingham has not forgotten Shaw's wit; he has clearly attempted to exploit all the obvious opportunities for laughter. As a result, the Harvard production is part farce, part serious philosophy. The two approaches sometimes jar. There is little subtle comedy to bridge the two moods, and the actors and their audience have trouble making the transition.
The battle of the sexes, sketched in the script with deftness and insight, is too often reduced in the Harvard production to mere coquetry. Man and Superman is something of a modern morality play, with its characters symbolizing concepts rather than ordinary people. Only at times do the Harvard players achieve this universality, however; more often they are just figures in what Bentley has called the "low biological comedy" of the story.
The Ann White field on the Loeb stage is not the representative of the Life Force, the pursuer who must necessarily conquer John Tanner to achieve motherhood; and John Tanner (but some of this is Shaw's doing) is not the artist who must remain free to give the Life Force meaning and whose entrapment is tragic.
Instead, Etain O'Malley has created a woman who just wants a man and knows how to get him. Motherhood is not very much in the picture. Philip Kerr's John Tanner protests far too much to be believed. He is going to marry Ann: he knows it, she knows it, we know it, and what's more, he wants to do it. This still makes for a good story, and Kerr is quite amusing as he attempts to avoid his inevitable fate, but it is not quite the whole story proposed by Shaw's lines.
Partially because what has gone before was too farcical to prepare the stage, but also because of its great difficulty, the Don Juan in Hell scene was not a success on opening night. The switch to philosophy was too abrupt, and the actors pounced clumsily on the occasional humorous lines, rather than slyly relishing them. The pages of exposition Shaw wrote on the natural attraction of the sexes and the dream of the superman, an unobtainable man of contemplation, a force without form, became just inanimate talk lacking much meaning. Don Juan receives only token opposition from his companions as he argues for the superman and rejects woman, and he rushes through his case without conviction and expression. At times it appeared that Kerr's primary goal was remembering his lines.
Once through with the Hell scene, however, the Players almost magically joined together to present their best performance of the summer. The first act, despite some judicious cutting by Everingham, dragged at times, and the opening of the second act, in the bandit's hide-out in the Sierra Nevadas, was too stiff and ludicrous. But in the third act, when all the unleashed forces seek and obtain resolution, the Players were smooth, polished, and sparkling. Etain O'Malley, who is not voluptuous enough to be the vamp she attempter earlier, was superb as she first disposed of one eager lover and then skillfully trapped Tanner.
Patricia Fay, as Violet, the woman who gets her man early and uses her womanly techniques to obtain wealth, was again outstanding, occasionally making those near her look embarrassingly amateurish. Joan Tolentino, Ann's half shrewd, half silly mother, was irrepressible in the final act, and earned a well-deserved applause when she left the stage.
The men were not quite so successful. Tony Corbett's Octavius, the heart-broken poet scorned by Ann, is quite weak enough to deserve's Ann's cruel "Ricky-ticky-tavy" nick-name, but hardly deep enough to evoke sympathy. Timothy Mayer's Stryker, the auto mechanic and supposedly the New Man, and Mark Bramhall's Hector, Violet's secret husband, are spoiled by their accents. Mayer is sometimes hard to understand and Bramhall sounds more like a simpleton than the Jack Kennedy he apparently was immitating. Both, however, have enough sense of timing to draw their laughs well.
Paul R. Barstow, who seems to be settling down permanently into the role of the slightly foolish but good hearted old man, is deft and witty despite a poor start and occasional lapses of memory, but John A. Williams as the devil has problems. His Lucifer is too much a chatty member of the gang rather than its leader. Kerr is enthusiastic and often persuasive, although at times some of his mannerisms from The Mandrake marred his style. David Mills was a warm Irish-American father.
David Soule's striking sets and lighting were more than just background; they set the tone and spirit of the scenes with authority, complementing and augmenting the action.
Everingham's Man and Superman has its problems; the talk does get tedious in spots. Still, Shaw remains remarkably funny and the Harvard players have enhanced his wit with a good, workmanlike production well worth seeing