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*Theater review: 'Misalliance' at South Coast Repertory

September 19, 2010 | 12:41 pm

Misalliance 1 

Like their creator, George Bernard Shaw’s characters are blessed with the gift of scintillating gab. Words rarely fail them as they volley ideas, play devil’s advocate, deal out paradoxes and indulge in ironic repartee.

The talk that constitutes “Misalliance,” which is receiving a most attractive mounting at South Coast Repertory under the direction of Martin Benson, is like a river overflowing its banks. Not for nothing is this 1910 play subtitled “a debate in one sitting.” One long sitting, actually, relieved by a necessary intermission. This may not represent Shaw at his most dramatically rewarding, but the wit and intelligence are compensations that only a true comic virtuoso could provide.  

Momentous events occur at the impressive country house owned by John Tarleton (Dakin Matthews), a self-made titan in the underwear business who plays host to a curious parade of invited and uninvited guests. But these life-altering developments are largely an opportunity for characters to catch their breath as the wide-ranging conversation proceeds at full-gallop under a glass pavilion, an architectural extravagance that lends the impression of a hothouse of eccentric botanicals.

Misalliance 3 What has all those tongues wagging? At issue is the match between Hypatia Tarleton (Melanie Lora) and Bentley Summerhays (Wyatt Fenner). She’s the fiercely independent daughter of John and Mrs. Tarleton (Ameilia White), exemplars of the moneyed middle class; he’s the delicately strung son of Lord Summerhays (Richard Doyle), an old and highly regarded aristocrat who has returned to England after a long tenure of colonial service.

Hypatia, who has inherited her father’s penchant for novel ideas even as she can’t stand the way he blabbers on about them, argues that it’s not wise to marry for love. Avid for experience after an upbringing that was as progressive as it was devoid of excitement, she wishes to maintain an upper hand in all her affairs.

In this respect, she has chosen wisely. Bentley, a squirmy, spoiled wisp of a thing, is apprenticing at the Tarleton underwear headquarters in his attempt at becoming a man, a test that Hypatia’s smug, profit-oriented brother, John (Daniel Bess), is sure he will fail. (Fenner, shrilly playing up his character's annoying quirks, turns Bentley into an Oxbridge Pee-wee Herman.)

The misalliance of the title, however, has less to do with the union between the wealthy entrepreneurial class and the snobby, cash-short gentry than between parents and their offspring. The young and old are at loggerheads, and a perennial topic of concern is the proper manner of raising and educating children -- a problem that Shaw sees as directly analogous to the dilemma of shoring up an always-teetering democracy. (His voluble preface to the play lays out the connections in minute detail.)

Happily, the playwright injects a few notes of the surreal into this intellectualized romantic comedy. A recreational plane makes a crash landing that brings Joseph Percival (Peter Katona), a good-looking Oxford chum of Bentley’s, and Lina Szczepanowska (Kirsten Potter), a Polish acrobat, into the mix to upset the amorous arrangements. And Julius Baker (the superb JD Cullum), a gun-toting clerk with a vendetta against the senior Tarleton for supposedly destroying his mother’s life, also unexpectedly enters the scene, learning more than he cares to about these freethinking and, to him, morally dubious swells while hiding out in the newly installed Turkish bath. (Critic Kenneth Tynan once approvingly pointed to this latter plot point as proof of "the sheer mad Irishness" of the author.)

Benson, who has guided many Shaw productions during his long run as SCR’s artistic director, keeps the comedy running smoothly and steadily. His actors aren’t scrupulous with their accents, but I admired the unfussy competence and clarity of many of their comic characterizations.
Matthews brings his usual brio to the language, finding punch-line snap in dialogue that must be quite an aerobic workout to deliver. Doyle’s Lord Summerhays and White’s Mrs. Tarleton offer more than parental caricatures, topping off their neatly prepared types with fizzy contradictions. Lora vividly portrays the ingenue Hypatia with the prescribed devilish twist, and Potter and Cullum provide humorous exclamation marks.

On an indoor-outdoor set by Ralph Funicello that is truly one of the stars of the show, the droll drawing-room antics are allowed to frolic in an innovative garden ambiance. Maggie Morgan’s costumes add color to scenery that, like Shaw’s writing, imaginatively blends the natural with the artificial.

“Misalliance” doesn’t culminate in the explosive synthesizing vision of “Heartbreak House,” an ultimately more satisfying Shavian adventure. The squabbles between parents and children are never to be resolved, and thus the ending marks just a temporary cessation in what will forever be a garrulous conflict. But the high level of entertaining chatter remains as fresh as it must have been a century ago.

-- Charles McNulty
"Misalliance." South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions). Ends Oct 10. $28-$66. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org.  Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Photos: Top: Dakin Matthews and Amelia White. Bottom: Melanie Lora and Richard Doyle. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times


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Comments () | Archives (5)

"His actors aren’t scrupulous with their accents".

Mr. McNulty, thank you for putting into print what your Times colleagues don't. If a theater insists on producing Shaw, then the theater must be equipped to cast the play with actors who can handle the proper accents. Shaw wrote about class war and used language and accents to denote class structure or the falsity of it. By not performing Shaw with a strong command of British accent -- rather than just the one-Brit (or Cockney, heaven save us)-for-all version we must submit to in Los Angeles -- the actors fail to communicate the play's -- and Shaw's -- meaning.

I am, by no means, a Shaw lover. But I have read too many reviews in this publication in which the reviewers do not mention the cast's ineptitude with British accents, and I have consequently found myself at the production (glowingly reviewed) cringing at the awful sounds purported to be English emitting from the actors' mouths (the recent production of Bedroom Farce is a prime example). In each case, blame must fall on the director's shoulders. He/she ought to be able to 1) cast the play properly and 2) listen.

However, I also believe it is the reviewer's responsibility to point out -- and perhaps warn audiences -- that "the actors aren't scrupulous with their accents". I can only come up with two reasons why LA critics don't: they've either grown tone deaf to accent or have completely given up on our actors' ability to speak them.

I saw the production on September 19th. It was a lot of fun despite the apparent lack of accents.

I am sure the critic and Mr. Smith are correct in the comment that the actors are not "scrupulous with their accents", but while it may be jarring to anyone British, the lack made no difference to me .

The class distinctions were very clear from the dialogue; having the correct accents was not essential for an American audience.

I would expect that actors in SoCal with a command of various British accents are thin on the ground and so requiring that would have unduly limited casting.

Having seen the production, I think it is too bad that the reviewer failed to mention even the name of the performer who played Joseph Percival, Peter Katona. Katona's accent was "spot on", and the character a very recognizable British type portrayed with considerable Shavian skill. Perhaps it was an editorial error, given that every other actor's name was mentioned after their character's, in which case, I hope a correction might be published.

Like Mr. Smith, I would appreciate theater reviews' comments on accents. I am not British; I cannot speak with a British accent. But I find it extremely distracting to listen to American actors' failed attempts at a British accent or to those accents that come & go.

I would strongly prefer that a British play be performed with authentic British accents. British actors are not "thin on the ground" in LA and some American actors can produce successful imitations. If that is not a casting option, actors should perform with an unaltered American accent.

That goes for other accents as well. If an actor is portraying a Frenchman, he can speak the English lines with an American accent or with a French accent, but please, NOT with a Spanish or Russian accent.


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