BWW Reviews: The Drawing Room as Snow Globe - Shaw's MISALLIANCE at Olney

By: Oct. 04, 2010
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Misalliance is a word adopted from the French term for an unfortunate diplomatic relationship, which only within the last two centuries has been extended to refer to regrettable romantic relationships and marriages. George Bernard Shaw, in whose lifetime the word was first employed in the second sense in English, undoubtedly had both senses in mind when he entitled his 1909 play Misalliance. Although the play is primarily concerned with the vagaries of British mating rituals of its era, there are many more kinds of incompatibility through which Shaw rummages as he proceeds.

Indeed the central dynamic of the play is the jamming of as many incompatible classes and opinions on the stage at one time as possible, and trying out how they fit together (or do not). Shaw's inspiration was to do it in the framework of a drawing room comedy. While this venerable dramatic format has almost always featured some juxtaposition of classes (often a crowd of toffs with a working-class maid or butler thrown in for comic relief), Shaw stretches this convention to nearly the breaking point. By the time the entire ensemble is on stage at the end of what is usually presented as the second act (there is no demarcation between acts in the script, and the original production had two intermissions), there is no longer any dramatic plausibility to The Situation. No group that large and that diverse would cohere long enough to participate in a single conversation.

By then, the stage is laden with five members of the class of wealthy shopkeepers, two aristocrats, a young member of the working class, and a socially unclassifiable foreigner; there are defenders of privilege, social progressives and socialists (not at all the same); proponents of giving social acceptance to new freedoms for women and women who wish to make use of new freedoms (also not necessarily the same). There have been 14 proposals of marriage, onstage and off, among the characters, some of them of the extreme May/December variety.

In short, Shaw has taken the drawing room (here actually a glass-roofed sunroom) and shaken it up like a snow globe to see how things fall within it.

In Olney Theatre's very lucid new revival of the play, we are given a clear sense of how Shaw thought they would fall. (I say "would" because it is hard to contemplate Shaw being foolish enough to believe in the verisimilitude of this concoction; he knows it's fiction. The world of the sunroom is a dramatic convention as much as those scenes at the end of a Shakespeare play where everyone gets married and all problems are resolved.)

And where (if we believed in the sunroom) would everything fall? According to Shaw, humbuggery would be unmasked, and clear-eyed women would choose fewer but better marital unions.

Pretty much everyone is a humbug somewhere along the line. John Tarleton (Joe Vincent), the shopkeeper turned plutocrat and patriarch, is actually not the family man he professes to be, as becomes clear when Julius Baker (Drew Kopas) who may be the product of an extramarital fling, turns up. Baker, who espouses sexual freedom in theory as a proper socialist, is shocked when he witnesses a mild case of it in progress in his vicinity. Hypatia, Tarleton's ingenue daughter (Patricia Hurley), who makes use of that freedom to ignore Bentley, her intended (Matthew McGloin), and pursue a likelier male prospect named Joseph (Alex Podulke) who happens unexpectedly on the scene, denies it all when Baker confronts her. Joseph bullies Baker into denying the evidence of Baker's own eyes. And so on. No one wants to admit how much Eros governs him or her.

Except that the women have another secret as well: they have subordinated their eroticism to practicality and become Shavian "new women". Hence Hypatia jilts her effete intended and rejects her intended's aristocratic and elderly father, in order to pursue Joseph, a vigorous if slightly impecunious young man. This seems to be a manifestation of a hard-eyed practicality on the part of some motivating Life Force. As does the determination of the iconoclastic Lina Szczepanowska, Polish tightrope walker and aviatrix (Andrea Cirie), with whom the whole household falls in love when she unexpectedly crashes the party. She chooses out of hand not to marry any of the males there, though almost all of them pursue her. For either of these women (the only eligible women in the play) to have mated otherwise would have been a misalliance.

The Olney production, ably directed by John Going, illustrates in crystalline fashion Shaw's sunny conviction that there would an absence of both successful humbug and personal misalliances under the laboratory conditions of a sunroom into which anyone could crash. In our actual world, unions concocted without the aid of Shavian sunroom, as Shaw famously observes in the play, no matter whether arranged or for love, are all equally iffy propositions. Real-life commoners and pashas did not mingle in real-life sunrooms of Shaw's era or any other, and, if they had, social convention would have prevented the inhabitants interbreeding for Shaw's program of betterment of the species.

Because of this air of unreality surrounding the whole venture, it is fair to ask whether the whole play is anything other than an amusing talkfest. Shaw certainly does love to set his characters jabbering at each other, a fact which was obvious even to Shaw himself. (He tries to inoculate the audience against reaching this conclusion by having the characters themselves refer disparagingly to it, both to open and close the piece, with Bentley starting the play forcing another character to abandon his book and converse against his will, and Tarleton closing the play by announcing, in an astonished voice, that at the end of the arguments "there's nothing more to be said.")

But the fact is that Shaw loves the words. Disparage them though he may, Shaw knows that the arguments are the drama. It's a high-wire act Shaw (like Szczepanowska) performs, trying to keep the audience from losing interest in the big abstractions to which he mercilessly subjects his characters. In support of this struggle, Shaw is not above tricks like the well-known stage effect that ends the first act (I won't give it away for the hermits who may not have heard of it, except to say that it is ably realized here), and a great deal of over-the-top business not ordinarily part of drawing room comedies (brandished pistols, hysterical fits on the floor, etc.).

I think it's fair to say - and generations of theatergoers would agree with me - that in the end Shaw gets away with it, even though it's hard to fathom exactly how. Shaw is witty but not hysterically funny like Oscar Wilde, another practitioner of the drawing room genre. In my opinion, the cause of Shaw's success is that his ideas themselves are funny. And by that I intend no compliment to Shaw. There is an air of genial crackpot about him. Watching him philosophize is a bit like hearing Florence Foster Jenkins sing. As Shaw's characters contort themselves to exemplify Shavian thinking, they are illustrating points not found in nature. There may at one time have been people who shared Shaw's views, but they are all history now. (The idea, for instance, that freeing women completely to take the initiative in matters of courtship would lead to better marriages and the improvement of the species, has been, shall we say?, experimentally disproved.) All we as a modern audience see are characters nearly as odd, and whose stories wind up nearly as oddly, as the words they speak. It is this good-humored strangeness, I submit, that gives Shaw his fascinating, amusing power.

The Olney crew get this nearly right. The traps to avoid are overacting or falling out of character. Shaw's characters may be emotional or reflective and self-deprecating, but either way, they do not realize they are part of a joke, They do not laugh at the funny things they say or engage in mannered amplification to the audience of their actions. Two of the actors, McGloin as Bentley and Joel Reuben Ganz as Tarleton's belligerently complacent son, are allowed to overdo the opening along these lines, and once or twice I saw other actors smiling at jokes where their characters would not have. But in general the cast go through their paces in a way Shaw would, I think, have approved.

In particular, Shaw would, I believe, have approved of the two elderly gentlemen, Joe Vincent as Tarleton and Dudley Knight as Lord Summerhays, each of them accomplished veterans who are given the truest notes to sound, and sound them well. Whatever questionable notions Shaw may have floated about this and that, he was already old enough when he wrote this play to empathize with the frustrations inflicted by old age. In the speeches given these gentlemen on the subjects of relationships with grown children or the persistence of unattainable erotic aspirations into more advanced age, Shaw was speaking from the heart rather than the head, and it shows. Vincent and Knight knock these passages out of the park.

Is there such a thing as doing Shaw too nicely? The Olney production provides an exquisite set, impeccable lighting, period costumes that seem at once authentic and harbingers of the frivolity at the heart of the enterprise, the British (and Polish) accents are perfect. Each performance is spot-on (excepting the small quibbles I have noted). And yet there is some spark missing that I cannot put my finger on. Perhaps the fault is not with the production at all. Perhaps the play is just, like Tarleton and Lord Summerhays, showing its age. In a play so much about ideas, perhaps the passé quality of the ideas, the fact that they are neither convincing nor shocking, just shows more clearly when the performance serves them up so cleanly.

In any case, this is a tasteful performance Shaw afficionados will love, and well worth an early fall evening in the lovely purlieus of the Olney Theatre Center.


Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw, Olney Theatre Center, Main Stage, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, MD 20832. Through October 24, Wednesdays through Saturday evenings, Saturday and Sunday matinees. Seats $44-$54. 301-924-3400.




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