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Man and Superman
A Comedy of Hellish Proportions
By Elyse Sommer
Jack, Man and Superman's central character and something of a stand-in for the author, is probably just catching his breath. Most of his dialogue, like that of most of the other characters, consists of long speech-like arias. Since the play is a typical Victorian drawing room comedy with a totally predictable battle of the sexes plot, I might as well add that Jack's temporary brevity is a pause so that he can embrace his ward Ann Whitefield, who's succeeded in defeating his determination not to marry her.
The play was Shaw's answer to requests for him to do the Don Juan story. He framed his version with an essentially fluffy romantic parlor comedy that revolves around Jack Tanner, a free thinking rich young Londoner; Roebuck Ramsden, an ultra conservative older gentleman; and Ann Whitehead whose father recently died and made Jack and Ramsden her co-guardians. While Ann would like the guardianship Jack never wanted to go deeper, Jack sees her desire to marry him as an attempt to overwhelm him with the Life Force which he believes motivates women to pursue a mate with whom to produce a Superman (this idea was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical ideas about the "uebermensch").
The inventive Shaw even managed to work in a second romantic plot involving another strong-willed young woman and a wealthy American. But Shaw being Shaw, he weighed his light-hearted comedy down with a heavy serving of various philosophical musings — so much so, that those who have undertaken to produce Man and Superman have often abridged it by dropping the lengthy "Don Juan in Hell" dream sequence.
While Man and Superman does stand on its own without Jack's hellish dream, and has been mounted as such since it's London premiere, that third act is interesting enough to have had its own separate performances — most famously, a concert version featuring Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke and Agnes Moorehead. That's why David Steller, the founder/artistic director of the Gingold Theatrical Group and the Irish Rep deserve our thanks for giving us a rare chance to see Shaw's comedy as intended but streamlined and with Jack's dream included.
Staller displays considerable wit of his own in adapting Shaw's text to be enriched with the inclusion of the often excised Hell dream. To signal its inclusion he's changed the original subtitle, A Comedy and a Philosophy to A Comedy of Hellish Proportions. I'm not sure just what's trimmed, but he's streamlined it all and merged the four acts into two that clock in at approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes (the time to the final curtain depending on the Irish Rep's limited bathroom facilities to accommodate the intermission line).
The ensemble is used most effectively to introduce the play. They enter James Noone's light and airy drawing room in Ramsden's London home. As another unusual enhancement, they deliver aphorisms from The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion, the book that Jack wrote and that Shaw published as a long appendix to his play. After this curtain raiser, the ensemble exits and returns only as the individual roles they play dictate — to again perform as a lively intra-scene chorus, and to dress Jack as Don Juan at the beginning of the dream scene.
The cast is sterling. Max Gordon Moore is just fine as the high-minded, Jack who nowadays would be tagged as commitment shy. He opines at great length and does so with clarity and naive charm. Janie Brookshire gives an assured performance as the determined Ann who pursues the man she's determined to marry all the way to Spain.
Brian Murray brings his music-to-the-ear vocals to the convention bound Ramsden. Laurie Kennedy is well cast as Ann's mother Mrs. Whitehead, so is Will Bradley as Octavius, Ann's aspiring but not-to-be mate. Margaret-Loesser Robinson and Zachary Spicer are amusing as as Violet and Hector, the romantic sub-plot's' principals. Paul O'Brian as Hector's nouveau riche American tycoon father is even funnier.
Jonathan Hammond stands out as Mendoza the character who challenges Jack's opinions all the way to hell. Besides Mendoza's Devil and Jack's Don Juan, the now included Don Juan in Hell scene also provides additional hellish acting opportunities for Brian Murray, Laurie Kennedy and Janie Brookeshire as the dream's other personages: the Commander and the old and young Dona Ana.
As the fluffy comedy can and has more often than not stood on its own without Jack's transmogrifying into Don Juan, it's easy to see why the Don Juan in Hell dream has had its own free standing success — most famously a concert version featuring Charles Boyer as Don Juan, Charles Laughton as the Devil, Cedric Hardwicke as the Commander and Agnes Moorehead as Doña Ana, a 1962 LP album of which is available for download at Amazon and various other web sites.
In the second actNoone's London drawing room unfussily but effectively allows the action to move to the Afterlife in the lower depth and Spain. Both settings well supported by Kirk Bookman's lighting. Theresa Squire's costumes are a feast for the eyes and true to the period.
This is the first New York production of this work in twenty-five years. Given its inclusion of the often omitted portion, it's not only a chance to see a rarely done Shaw play but to o see it without omitting a meaningful element. Yes, it's talky but it's good talk. If you don't believe me, here's just a sample of what you'll hear
From Jack's < The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion,: Take care to get what you like or you will be forced to like what you get. . . Marriage is popular because it combines the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity. . . The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. . .Lack of money is the root of all evil.. .We don't stop playing because we grow old; We grow old because we stop playing.. .The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.
From the Don Juan in Hell scene: Oh! when I think of how much wickeder I could have been! All my good deeds wasted! . . .there is justice in hell: heaven is far above such idle human personalities. Hell is the home of honor, duty, justice, and the rest of the seven deadly virtues. All the wickedness on earth is done in their name: where else but in hell should they have their reward?. . . In hell, old age is not tolerated. It is too real. Here we worship Love and Beauty. Our souls being entirely damned, we cultivate our hearts. You have left your age behind you in the realm of time. You are no more 77 than you are 7 or 17 or 27. . .But why doesn't everybody go to Heaven, then? Because heaven is the most angelically dull place in all creation.
For more about George Bernard Shaw, see Curtainup's Shaw Backgounder.
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