The always opinionated George Bernard Shaw once challenged the so-called Father of Modern Drama, Henrik Ibsen, to explain "if he can, why the building of houses and the raising of families is not the ultimate destiny of mankind." All this despite the fact that Shaw never reared a child of his own, which naturally qualified him to give advice to everyone else on the matter.
Great social reformer that he aspired to be (he was a socialist and a member of the influential Fabian Society), Shaw wrote several plays that fly in the face of traditionally held beliefs about the happy home, the role of women in society and the raising of children. None, however, address more provocatively the Irish dramatist's beliefs about parents, children and marriage than Misalliance, now receiving a skillful staging by the Denver Center Theatre Company.
Shaw wrote the play in 1910, the last year of Edward VII's reign, at a time when young women "withered into ladies" shortly after marriage. And Hypatia Tarleton (Stephanie Cozart) is a young woman horrified at the prospect of withering before her time. Her father, Mr. Tarleton (Richard Risso), is an underwear magnate who also sponsors free libraries, though not always free thought. The patriarch's two-word answer to any social question is to suggest that a particular author be consulted. For instance, to learn about the joy of life, he says to his family, "Read Ibsen."
Tarleton's son, Johnny (Andrew Philpot), is concerned with making money and thrashing an irritating smart aleck, Bentley Summerhays (Douglas Harmsen), who is engaged to Hypatia. Bentley's father, Lord Summerhays (Tony Church), joins the majority of people who oppose the marriage, but not because a union between members of different classes will constitute a "misalliance." He simply wants the girl for himself.
As the group relaxes in the solarium (a beautiful, tasteful set designed by Bill Curley) and ponders weighty issues, Shaw breaks up their monotonous goings-on with a neat stage trick: An airplane carrying two passengers crashes into Tarleton's modest estate. As they climb out of the wreckage, we are introduced to Joey Percival (John Hutton) and his passenger, a strikingly attractive Polish woman, Lina Szczwpanowska (Carol Halstead).
Act Two features Hypatia lustfully chasing the pants off Joey and Lina soundly beating the daylights out of Bentley (to the delight of everyone in the theater). Meanwhile, Tarleton contends with his illegitimate son, Julius "Gunner" Baker (Jamie Horton), a mumbling, pistol-toting man who unexpectedly arrives at the home to exact revenge on his deadbeat dad.
Director Anthony Powell's luminous production radiates with qualities lacking in most American stagings of Shaw, which often seek to emulate British models of the idea-packed dramas. Typically in such productions, an actor crosses to a clear area of the stage, turns toward the audience and issues the playwright's proclamations about, say, religion or sex (in a marvelous, clipped British dialect, of course). Then another actor steps forward to deliver an invigorating reply to what has just been said. Two and three-quarter hours of that might be considered an intellectual tennis match, but it's a deathly boring one.
Wisely avoiding such a malady, Powell has encouraged his company to rely on a hallmark of American acting: the creation of characters made of blood and guts, who are instantly identifiable to us because of their instincts and feelings. Realizing that vitality of character enhances rather than stifles great thought, Powell thus avoids framing the play as a stodgy debate. Instead, the playwright's ideas grab our attention because we are focused on watching believable characters behaving truthfully in a believable place.
Marrying the best of both acting traditions, the British-born and -bred Church leads the company with a portrayal that is remarkable for its nuance and detail, even though it is primarily a supporting part. A master of the slow, comic take, Church frequently enchants the audience. Occasionally tilting his head or leaning his frame in one direction or another, the veteran actor delicately colors Shaw's dense dialogue with marvelous understatement, and we hang on his every line and movement throughout the play. Equally spellbinding are his more serious moments in the drama. When Hypatia playfully mocks his earnest marriage proposal, he replies, "Don't profane what you don't understand," revealing a complex character capable of both grave declaration and comic frivolity.
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Church also brings out the best in his fellow actors. Cozart shines in her téte-à-téte with him; even when she's chasing Joey around the stage hoping to bed him, she's not as joyful as she is in her episodes with Church. Risso, too, displays great virtuosity throughout the drama, but never more so than during his exchanges with Church. In the show's most poignant scene, Tarleton quietly admits to Summerhays that he intentionally failed in his youth so that he might gain greater fame by redeeming himself later. Church's reaction to Risso's heartfelt confession artfully enriches the moment.
Halstead wraps her tongue around Lina's dialect as best she can, exuding a woman who can't understand or appreciate British culture's peccadilloes and mores. The character serves as Shaw's foil to the ideal post-Edwardian woman, and Halstead's performance as the aviatrix is easily her best work at the DCTC to date. Meanwhile, Horton regales the audience with his tight-lipped, twitching antics and unmasks British society with a passionate diatribe that champions the worth of every individual. As he verbally picks apart the family and its guests, he asserts that his moments in the sun have been worth just as much as anyone else's, declaring, "I don't give a damn for the lot of you." On opening night, an audience that obviously identified with his point of view met his exit with sustained applause.
While some of the play's ideas are difficult to latch on to and others receive a more comical response than Shaw may have intended, it's equally true that a great many of Shaw's thoughts stick with us in ways that make him seem more modern than tomorrow. At least, that's what Shaw himself would have said.
Misalliance, through November 15 at the Space Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.