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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\charlesmcnulty
"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  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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