All Things Entertaining and Cultural
In “Misalliance,” people are always confiding to others what they would withhold from their progenitors or progeny. There are also class divides and gender barriers to explore. Shaw half wonders how the world gets its work done considering how many obstacles there are to simply getting along. Talkative and liberal-minded as his characters are, there are matters too delicate for a mother or father to talk in front of his or her own child, even though conversation runs free when other people of the children’s age are present. Idealization or myths that one’s parents or children don’t have the same thoughts or experiences as everybody else are rife among the characters. No one, for instance, likes to think of their parents conceiving them or that a child might be a nuisance to others.
Who talks to whom about what in “Misalliance” is part of its fun. A man for instance doesn’t know one of his former mistresses had a son, yet his wife knows it because the woman came to see her and spoke frankly when she was having financial troubles.
Then there’s the people who talk instead of do. The Tarletons and their guests, the Summerhayses, are fairly active people when it comes to business or government, but they opt for a calm country life when not occupied with their work. Lina Szczepanowska, who comes from a line of Polish acrobats and daredevils, makes it a point of honor to risk her life in some adventure every day.
Shaw also uses Lina to put the kibosh on gender expectations. When she comes crashing through the roof of the Tarleton conservatory in an airplane accident, the amazed Tarletons and Summerhayses can’t wait to see the person who pulled off an amazing physical feat that saved the other passenger’s life and are shocked to learn their hero and new guest is a woman. Even the other passenger, Joey Percival, a schoolmate of Bentley Summerhays, and one who had the benefit of three fathers, is stunned to find the person the Aviation Society engaged for him to fly with is a woman.
So much conversation and debating go on, and so many ideas are advanced in “Misalliance,” it’s difficult to encapsulate it all in a review of Shaw’s radiant comedy.
No matter. The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, which usually leans towards the more obscure and absurd, is keeping Shaw’s discussions and theories about humanity lively in Tina Brock’s fast-moving production that brings Shavian badinage to a vibrant head and makes all eminently listenable and crackingly entertaining.
Brock’s cast go through their spaces with a maximum of spirit. The life force Shaw explores in “Man and Superman” seems to flow freely in all of their veins. In addition to the animation Brock’s troupe gives their characters, I doubt there has been another company that is so uniformly gifted in diction and projection. The “Misalliance” cast has strong, booming voices that convey urgency and earnestness while never stinting in finding the humor in Shaw’s thoughts or dialogue. John Tarleton, Sr. is a reader and spouting intellect is more of a blood sport than a leisurely activity in his home that is decorated with stacks of books.
Another source of misalliance is the reaction to other people’s ideas. Everyone at the Tarleton manse has a strong opinion about something, even the relatively quiet and self-contained Mrs. Tarleton. Other may equally strong counter arguments. It takes all kinds to make a world, and Shaw set all kinds of folks talking about just that idea in his play.
Brock keeps her characters moving as fast as their lips and their mouths. Hers is not a relaxed production but one that shows people of vitality looking to live their lives to the fullest and explain how they’re doing it.
John Tarleton is a successful businessman, but he would rather be a writer and a philosopher. He can’t quite give up the business that earns him a fortune and keeps growing no matter what he does to ease its evolution, so he reads voraciously in his spare time and finances dozens of free libraries throughout Great Britain. One of the ironies in “Misalliance” is someone who holds a grudge against Tarleton talks about how poverty has made him reliant on libraries to satisfy his yen for literature.
John Tarleton, Jr. is the opposite of his Dad. He is a man of action who likes to keep fit and would rather go over the business’s account books than follow his father’s advice and read Darwin, Ibsen, Chesterton, or others. Johnnie’s foil is Bentley Summerhays, the effete son of a British imperial governor, who points out that Johnnie is all body and no brains while he has no physique and is all brains. Bentley takes advantage of being the youngest on the premises by having tantrums and seeking solace whenever his vanity in wounded., In Shaw’s spirit of misalliance, Bentley’s childish behavior embarrasses his father but earns him the comfort of Mrs. Tarleton and her daughter, Hypatia, to whom Bentley is engaged. Sort of.
Hypatia is tired of all the talk and arguing that goes on about her. She finds her country existence pleasant but uneventful. She wishes for adventure to fall through the roof, and when Lina and Joey arrive, it does.
Lina, of course, is the odd fish in the Tarleton circle. While the others all have regulated lives of one sort or another, Lina goes about the world looking for danger and earning her living by performing high wire acts that have sustained her family for generations.
You see all Brock had to cope with in putting together this production in a way that would bring all of this to the fore. She made a good choice is keeping all brisk and vigorous. The people we meet are never slack or sedentary. Their minds, bodies, and tongues work fast. That’s where the excellent diction comes in. Brock can set her production at a zingy tempo because her actors can be understood at any speed. The good news is the pace, though quick, seems real. The cast doesn’t race through the play as if it was a cartoon. They make sure the clarity and comedy of Shaw’s ideas come through. This is a good performance, and the cast seems to having a good time they relish sharing with the IRC audience.
David Bardeen sets the tone as John Tarleton, a man who cannot be bored because he has so many interests and enjoys hearing everyone’s ideas about everything. Bright-eyed and congenial, Bardeen’s Tarleton gives intellect a good name. He is energetic about building his libraries, and he is fond of his family and friends. Tarleton believes reason can solve everything, and he is so well-read as to know where to find the answers and references he needs to advance any argument. About the only people he can’t drive to reading at his pace and level are his wife and children. But they enjoy hearing him talk and, of course, have many ideas of their own. They also appreciate his money.
Emily Schuman keeps pace with her castmates but has a gentler, more soothing approach to her part as Mrs. Tarleton, called Chickabiddy by her husband when no one else is around. Schuman shows the common sense of Mrs. T. Because she is wealthy, she’s been invited to society gatherings and find the conversation there appalling. All about drainage and diphtheria, both of which have touched her home. Mr. Tarleton speaks of reason. Mrs. Tarleton practices it and has a common way with everyone that shows her experience and comfort with the basic things in life. Schuman delivers her lines in an authoritative way that is also warm and maternal. She knows exactly how her character should behave towards the petulant Bentley and a young man who comes to call seeking revenge for a slight he believes is Mr. Tarteton’s responsibility. She also knows how to put her husband in his place when he becomes too fanciful.
Kristen Norine is lustrous as Lina. She is clear and not susceptible to charm as she talks of her daily perils and how threatening her life makes her feel life all the more.
Lina is the most individual and outspoken of all “Misalliance’s” characters. Norine wears that independence as if it’s part of her costume. She also demonstrates Lina’s derring-do when he helps Mr. Tarleton from a scrape and removes a whining Bentley from a room on her back.
Andrew Carroll, so noble in a heroic role last season, shows he is a deft character actor and comedian with his performance as Bentley. Even when Bentley is relatively calm and even being suave, Carroll lets you see the boy who can become tactically emotional at any moment.
Paul McElwee, in a gray day coat with tails and former trousers, is the picture of a British diplomat, one who speaks openly on the difference between how people think the provinces are governed and what it takes to really do the job. McElwee captures the formality of Lord Summerhays while being comfortable in demonstrating he is a man of the world and one who can read the bigger picture in situations set before him. McElwee also has a great scene in which he’s embarrassed for having played a cad.
David Stanger’s John Tarleton, Jr. is the one character who has no interest in books or debates about life. Stanger, always standing firm and stalwart, and always looking for a way to poke fun at his intellectual companions, is the image of the practical man of affairs whose pastime is sport, boxing in particular, and who prefers to have a beer, a few laughs, and a discussion about profits and linen costs instead of this talk, talk, talk with Bentley’s sniveling and his sister being wooed by just about everyone who enters the premises.
Langston Darby is excellent as Baker, the man who comes to the Tarleton estate with a violent purpose, lecturing Mr. Tarleton on the difference between the laboring and merchant classes. Darby’s tension and indignity as he parries with Tarleton about honor and decency is funny and touching at the same time. He can’t believe he’s listening to and entertaining arguments from a man he only wants to throttle. Baker too succumbs to the nurturing talents of Mrs. Tarleton who makes him wonder even more if the classes can meet on even ground. Darby plays this surrender to Mrs. T. beautifully.
Heather Cole conveys the dreaminess of Hypatia, who is less a romantic than someone who just wants something dramatic to happen to enliven her comfortable, worry-free life. John D’Alonzo shows the irony in Joey Percival, who understands the appeal of the Tarleton house, especially after he meets Hypatia, but longs for firmer, quieter ground.
Anna Kiraly’s set fills the small Walnut stage with Victorian splendor, with comfortable stuffed furniture and piles of books enclosed within a conservatory-style greenhouse. The IRC cast has fun peering through the glass panels of Kiraly’s grand structure when Lina’s plane lands. Janus Stefanowicz designed costumes that denoted each of the characters. I especially liked her choice of a simple, straight skirt for Mrs. Tarleton and the formal attire in which she dressed Lord Summerhays.
Brock and her company have made “Misalliance” fun. You can bask in Shaw’s marvelous words and thoughts while being thoroughly entertained and getting a lot of laughs. I smiled broadly throughout the production, and I think the mirth with which IRC troupe presents Shaw’s comments on life is infectious enough to keep you smiling as well.
“Misalliance,” produced by the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, runs through Sunday, February 22, at the Walnut 5, the black box theater on the fifth floor of the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $22 to $20 and can be obtained by visiting www.idiopathicridiculosityconsortium.org.