The plays that George Bernard Shaw wrote in the late nineteenth century were popular because they were funny--and because, despite Shaw's socialist politics and Darwinian outlook, the societal conventions he appeared to flout were actually refined under the scalpel of his wit. With a few notable exceptions, Shaw's plays remain eminently civilized. And among the most genteel is You Never Can Tell, a charming, thoughtful comedy now in a vivid production at the Denver Center Theatre Company.
As the story opens, Mr. Valentine the dentist is extracting the tooth of lovely Dolly Clandon. When Dolly's twin brother, Phil, arrives to retrieve his sister, the siblings invite Valentine to lunch. He refuses at first, because he doubts that the twins are entirely well-bred, and he has to earn a living off respectable folks. But their mother is the famous author Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon, whose views (and books) on child-rearing and other household arts have made her a pillar of the community. Valentine's landlord, the grouchmeister Mr. Crampton, is also invited to tag along.
The Clandon twins have just returned from eighteen years abroad, and they and their older sister, Gloria, have no recollection of the father their mother left when they were infants. So, of course, they have no way of knowing that they've just invited Daddy--the crotchety Mr. Crampton--to have lunch with their mother. The introductions, naturally, are left to Mrs. Clandon.
The luncheon goes badly--crabby Crampton is angry, hurt and nasty. Meanwhile, Valentine ogles Gloria and, once the others are out of the room, tries to win her over. Gloria, who has fancied herself a tower of strength, falls rather harder than expected, and the rest of the play is spent sorting out all the relationships that have gone awry.
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Sam Gregory makes Valentine an especially rapturous scalawag, never losing energy and seeming to build naughtiness and brazen desire with each encounter. Unfortunately for him, Leslie Scarlett Mason gives him little to spark off of--hers is a damp, pale performance out of place among the other, more lively ones. Jennifer Abigail Lopez and Brian G. Kurlander are paired perfectly as the twins--they are all lively good spirits, honest, smart, sweet and bright. They create islands of intimacy whenever they are on together (and they are seldom apart). Jill Tanner is properly commanding as Mrs. Clandon, and Randy Moore gives another ingenious performance as the complicated Mr. Crampton. But Tony Church's William, the masterfully tactful restaurant waiter, is the most adorable presence of all.
The DCTC production serves to remind us that Shaw still works--and that there is something fine in his plays that should not be lost. He represents the sensibility of another time, perhaps, but while his plays now seem rather romantic, they never seem sentimental. Though the love story between Gloria and Valentine arises in a cultural context somewhat foreign to us today, the play remains remarkably relevant, because the war between the sexes as Shaw understood it still rages on. Even more important, Shaw revealed in nearly all his best plays how people lie to themselves and how their emotions work with their intellects to get them what they want. Ever the Darwinist, Shaw believed in the "Life Force" and its mysterious power to have its way with all of us. Valentine even makes a long speech about chemical attraction, in which he insists that his adoration of Gloria has nothing to do with "love."
Shaw's ideas about natural selection may be outdated, but not his grasp of the purpose and mechanics of rationalization. Self-deception is the enemy in his work, and self-knowledge almost always the payoff for hard thinking and serious argument. With Shaw, nature always gets her way in the end--but only after the protagonist wakes up to a few telling personal truths.