"WORDS, WORDS, words," one might moan, like Hamlet to Polonius, about George Bernard Shaw's Misalliance. Nearly three hours of Shavian dialogue, however diverting, is a formidable experience. That it's also a pleasant one at the Loeb is a tribute to the author and the production.
Though Shaw makes fun of his own garrulity in Misalliance, he pushes the dramatic form to its limit of sustained conversation with minimal action, achieving both the benefits of perceptive, amusing communication among well-conceived characters and the problems of occasional monotony. In response to her talkative father's hesitant admission that "there's nothing more to be said," the spirited Hypatia ends the play with a resounding "Thank goodness." This declaration provokes the audience to laugh with gratitude for a pleasurable evening and relief that it has ended at last.
Not considered one of Shaw's "major works," the gentle social satire is nevertheless entertaining and chock-full of Shaw's provocative themes from the unsatisfactory relations of children and parents and women and men to the Life Force that opposes death to the stagnation of English society to the logic of socialism. To wade through this interesting but sticky bog of ideas with a light step, the Harvard Summer School Repertory Theater expends an extraordinary amount of energy. Despite a lack of polish apparent in the slow opening portion of the play, the company held a large opening night crowd enthusiastically engrossed by playing the laughs broadly and the histrionics bombastically.
The uneventful lives of the Tarletons, a middle class family grown rich in the underwear business, whose restless daughter is engaged to a puny, spoiled aristocrat, are enlivened in Shavian fashion by the unexpected injection of foreign elements. A handsome young man and a Polish lady acrobat drop in quite literally by crashing their aeroplane into the family greenhouse. And a timid would-be gunman secrets himself in the portable Turkish bath in order to avenge his mother's honor by attacking Mr. Tarleton. The volatile Pole, Lina Szczepanowska, puts her finger on how little takes place in this English family when she accuses the Tarletons and their guests: "You seem to think of nothing but making love. All the conversation here is about love-making."
Keeping his animated cast continually popping up and down and in and out, director Tunc Yalman maintains the verbose proceedings at a lively pace and uses the play's plentiful with to maximum advantage with frequent humorous bits of business. Some of Yolman's devices seem toofar-fetched, such as when he sends Mrs. Tarleton rushing to place her handkerchief over a small skull displayed on the writing table during a speech about her dead child. But countless other touches are hilarious and enhance Shaw's clever dialogue.
INEXPERIENCED acting and awkward staging account for the rough spots in the production. The English accents pronounced by some of the younger actors waver a bit indecisively before settling on region and dialect. Occasionally failing to pay attention to one another, the players time some of their remarks poorly. And though the audience surrounds the stage on only three sides with the bulk of the spectators in front of the stage, altogether too many of the characters' movements are directed to the back of the set, as if the play were being performed in the round. The actors often manage to upstage themselves, detracting from their performances.
Like its two previous productions, the Repertory's Misalliance is an actor's play written by an actor's playwright. Everybody gets a meaty part with lots of juicy speeches. The three old hands in the cast avail themselves fully of their dramatic opportunity. Louis Turenne heads up the company with his amusing and robust portrayal of the "superabundantly vital" and philosophic underwear manufacturer. Bramwell Fletcher follows closely behind as Lord Summerhays, the fiance's father, a charming old aristocrat still foolish and alive enough to suffer at the hands of an unfeeling young Hypatia.
Jessica Richman's Hypatia, a beefy beauty with a lusty voice who fairly dances about the stage is quite the "glorious young beast" Lord Summerhays takes her for. Alison Stanley, as the more independent and less romantically disposed Lina, also strikes a strong and appealing posture. The men are all competent, too--David Aston-Reese appropriately sincere and mindless as Johnny Tarleton, Patrick Young properly insufferable as pitiful little Bentley Summerhays, and Jonathan Frakes, quite the gentleman and quite not the gentleman as the moment demands, as the attractive visitor.
Almost every member of the cast overacts once in a while, contorting his face too painfully and shouting his lines too grandiloquently. However irritating it is probably a far better thing that they should do so than approach too subtly the uncut, unwieldy script they are commissioned to deliver.
Shaw knew perfectly well what sport and what difficulty his play presents. He mischievously has Lord Summerhays comment, "Democracy reads well; but it doesn't act well, like some people's plays." Whether democracy can act well is left unanswered by the play. But that Misalliance can act well, despite its length and status, is ably demonstrated by the Loeb's production.