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Review of Misalliance

from Baltimore City Paper Online
by Geoffrey Himes

Comedy of Manors: Center Stage Opens the Season with an Unruly Classic

A fundamental rule of playwriting is that all dialogue should advance the narrative, the central theme, or both. In Misalliance, however, George Bernard Shaw gleefully ignores this law. He sends his characters off on wild tangents, allowing them to expound at length on capitalism, political repression, cosmetics, underwear, and whatever else might pop into their heads.

As a result, Misalliance shouldn't work at all. But it does; in fact, it's one of the greatest plays in the English language. In its flawed but lively production at Center Stage, the play is as entertaining as it is unruly, as seductive as it is provocative.

Just watch the playwright as he makes his entrance early in the first act. His name is John Tarleton, but he is so obviously Shaw's alter ego that he is sometimes played with the writer's stiff white beard. At Center Stage, he is played beardlessly by Peter Van Norden, whose Tarleton radiates confidence and mischief as he strides into the glass-walled, glass-ceilinged pavilion of his manor. Shaw set his play in Surrey, but the pink flamingos on the Center Stage set suggest Roland Park.

Tarleton may have been born poor, but he built his company, Tarleton's Underwear, into a cash machine that made possible not only the manor but also the engagement between his daughter Hypatia and the aristocratic Bentley Summerhays. Shaw/Tarleton immediately tosses aside the main business of the play--will Hypatia really marry Bentley?--to embark on a tangent about evolutionary theory and the role of aging. We in the audience should be annoyed, but we're not, because Tarleton's enthusiasm is so contagious, his comments so witty. Oscar Wilde's famous aphorisms are echoed in such Tarleton epigrams as "My white hairs, the repulsive mask [are just] another invention of natural selection to disgust young women with me, and give the lads a turn."

Unlike Wilde, however, Shaw is interested in character, and these seemingly irrelevant detours carve defining details into Tarleton, his family and guests. The more Tarleton pontificates, the more he reveals his need to be an iconoclast, as revealed by his skepticism about the aristocracy, his pleasure in argument, and his frustration with his own children. Tarleton is, in fact, a bit of a buffoon, chasing after younger women and suggesting a reading list for every situation. It's no wonder that his two children, Hypatia and Johnny, roll their eyes at his speeches.

Johnny, played by Trent Dawson with the boyish vigor of a fraternity president, rebels against his liberal father by becoming a right-wing businessman. Hypatia, meanwhile, rebels to be like him. Tall and lithe in a pink-and-white summer dress, actress Stacy Ross gives Hypatia the pent-up energy of someone who longs to go off on an adventure but who is forced, due to her gender, to stay home and wait for someone to marry. Her best prospect so far is Bentley, who may be as well-read and witty as her father, but whenever things don't go his way--which is often--he simply whines until a sympathetic female rescues him.

As in many a Victorian romance, our young heroine wishes for the perfect lover to drop out of the sky into her life. Shaw, always eager to satirize the well-made plays of his day, makes this happen quite literally. At the end of Act One, an airplane crashes into Center Stage's glass pavilion, its black propeller and red nose poking through the ceiling. Landing nearby are Joey, the handsome, square-jawed pilot, and Lina, the passenger who turns out to be a Polish acrobat. Well, you don't have to be as well-read as Tarleton to realize who Hypatia is going to marry.

Because all nine characters are so vividly drawn, all nine actors must be equally strong--a near-impossible challenge for any theater and one which Center Stage falls short. Eric Sheffer Stevens is too stiff as Joey, while Patricia O'Connell is too fluttery as Mrs. Tarleton. Stacy Ross mistakes the play for a track meet; her Hypatia dashes about the stage with unnatural haste. And Andrew Weems so overdoes Bentley's whining that he becomes more annoying than Shaw ever intended.

But even these underwhelming performances can't spoil the production. Director Irene Lewis keeps the pacing so brisk (with the help of some judicious text trimming) that the momentum never falters. And she elicits stand-out acting from Van Norden as the charmingly overbearing Tarleton and from Natalija Nogulich as the stubbornly independent Lina.

But the two best performances come in supporting roles. As Gunner, the deranged clerk who has broken into the house to assassinate Tarleton, Carson Elrod doesn't utter his first line until well into the second act, but he nonetheless steals the show. The blank-faced, rubber-limbed Elrod physically resembles Stan Laurel, while his ranting and raving sound like Oliver Hardy. As he vacillates between bold threats and cringing despair, he provides the show's funniest moments.

Providing the most poignant moments is George Morfogen, who plays Bentley's father, Lord Summerhays. He is as full of ideas as Tarleton, but as pessimistic as his host is optimistic. After a lifetime of governing the British colonial outpost of Jinghiskahn, Summerhays is doubtful about the perfectibility of human society or the compatibility of parents and children. Morfogen embodies this skepticism with drooping eyelids, small, deliberate gestures and a voice wrapped in the cotton of fatalism. That voice is a discordant note in a play full of witty epigrams and enthusiastic romance, but it gives the play its weight and makes this a production not to be missed.


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