NEW YORK A Pearl Theater Company presentation of a play in two acts by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Jeff Steitzer. Set, Bill Clarke; costumes, Liz Covey; lighting, Stephen Petrilli; sound, Jane Shaw; wigs, Amanda Miller; fight direction, Rod Kinter; production stage manager, Dale Smallwood. Opened Dec. 13, 2009. Reviewed Dec. 11. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.
Johnny Tarleton Bradford Cover Bentley Summerhays Steven Boyer Hypatia Tarleton Lee Stark Mrs. Tarleton Robin Leslie Brown Lord Summerhays Dominic Cuskern John Tarleton Dan Daily Joey Percival Michael Brusasco Lina Szczepanowska Erika Rolfsrud The Man Sean McNall
If it sounds strange to call a 100-year-old play timely, note that the play in question is by George Bernard Shaw. His nine-character drawing-room comedy "Misalliance" is as enjoyably biting as anything written in recent years, and it's remarkably astute about upper-class hypocrisy in a distinctly Shavian way. Jeff Steitzer's straightforward staging for the Pearl Theater Company does exactly the right thing for the venerable text: It moves out of the way and lets Shaw sparkle.
The misalliance in question is between two families--the nouveaufiche Tarletons (with a very funny Dan Daffy as the unctuous patriarch, an underwear magnate) and the Summerhays clan. The latter is represented by patrician Lord Summerhays (Dominic Cuskern) and his odious son Bentley (a hilarious Steven Boyer).
Shaw spends the play slowly turning the tables on us--Bentley starts out wonderfully detestable, an overgrown toddler who throws himself on the ground and sobs whenever he can't have his way. Lord Summerhays, by contrast, seems long-suffering and kindly, with an adorable soft place in his heart for his son's fiancee, Hypatia Tarleton (Lee Stark as the family's flighty daughter).
By the end of the show, we're all rooting for Bentley and frightened half to death of his father, who has developed a truly disturbing personal philosophy during his time as a governor in Jinghiskahn, India.
Carefully, Shaw delineates a world run by ruthless capitalists and power-hungry noblemen, united by a strict moral code they impose on their subordinates but violate whenever they feel like it. Bentley and Hypatia are certainly badly matched in love, but it's their fathers' union that really gives us cause to worry.
The play is a comedy--practically a farce at times--but it's also genuinely scary at least once. When a young socialist (Sean McNall) breaks into this hornet's nest to take revenge on the senior Tarleton (who seduced his mother years earlier), he gets an earful from Summerhays. "Men are not governed by justice, but by law or persuasion," Cuskern seethes. "When they refuse to be governed by law or persuasion, they have to be governed by force or fraud, or both."
It's comforting to be reminded that contemporary leaders didn't invent this perspective, but its persistence suggests we won't be rid of it any time soon.
What's impressive about "Misalliance," and this production in particular, is how funny and hopeful all this social commentary can be. Bentley's pal and romantic rival Joey Percival (Michael Brusasco) literally drops out of the sky halfway through the play. He adds not one but two more subplots, since he brings along the inimitable, unpronounceable Lina Szczepanowska (Erika Rolfsrud) whose unconventional sexuality smites the stilted Victorian men with a mighty blow.
The show is also a fine example of what the Pearl can do when it gets it right: McNall, Cover, Stark, Brusasco and Cuskern all had parts in the company's "Playboy of the Western World" earlier this year, but few of them approached the sure-footed performances they give here. Under director Steitzer, they work as a unit and demonstrate the advantages of having a group of actors whose association spans several shows.
Design elements are good, especially given the company's tiny budget, with a particularly opulent-looking set from Bill Clarke and several nice costumes from Liz Covey. The cumulative effect nicely matches the characters' dry banter and maddening snobbery. There's little to complain about, frankly--it's a great play, well staged.