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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Though finally produced and published as part of his "Unpleasant Plays," The Philanderer never became one of Shaw's hits. Except for a brief run on Broadway (103 performances) in 1913 and an even briefer revival (50 performances) by the Roundabout Theatre Company in 1976, New York Theater goers have had just a few opportunities to see it in small off-off-Broadway theaters.
Shaw's own dislike for his fledgling work probably had a lot to do with the fact that, atypical of his later and more successful plays, The Philanderer tilted towards farce, a genre he disdained. Not so director Gus Kaikkonen, who has ratcheted up the farcical elements for the Pearl Theater Company's revival. Kaikkonen has executed his vision of a laughter heavy satire by supporting the dialogue with a lot of physical business to play down Shaw's inevitable talkiness which includes a four legged character who though apparently in the original script, has bee eliminated from some published versions of the script and other productions.
The current production doesn't raise The Philanderer to the level of his later and greater plays but it's entertaining enough to overcome quibbles about being dated and the usual bouts of talkiness. Best of all, the characters are made to order for the Pearl's resident actors and provide a fine showcase for guest actor Karron Graves.
The plot begins by setting up a romantic triangle which t was inspired by Bernard Shaw's own early involvement with two women. At its center is Leonard Charteris (Bradford Cover, coming off as a distant, somewhat boorish cousin of an Oscar Wilde character), the title character who wants to end his "philander" with Julia Craven (Karron Graves, ably keeping the histrionics from getting out of hand} and switch his affections to the beautiful widow gentle widow Grace Tranfield (Rachel Botchan, a cool, carm and collected contrast to the high strung Julia). All three are members of the Ibsen Club which unlike other such institutions is not an all-male bastion and in fact insists that its male members have renounced manly manhood, as its female members are a breed apart. As far as Julia is concerned, however, she's hardly the out and out feminist like her younger sister Sylvia (Shalita Grant, making the most of the play's least necessary character). She's been allowed into the club on false pretenses, as her tendency to cry and become hysterical are hardly the traits of a New Woman. Thus Leonard and Grace's romantic tete-a-tete at her home is interrupted by the arrival of a crazed Julia determined to retain her hold on Leonard.
This triangular situation broadens to include the Julia's father Colonel Craven (A delightfully pompous and perennially "vexed" Dan Daily) and Joseph Cuthbertson (Dominic Cuskern, as a genial dad willing to embrace modernity for his daughter's sake), who handled their own youthful love triangle quite in gentlemanly or "manly man" fashion. They find new world in which women have invaded once all male clubs is a puzzlement to these traditional Edwardians.
With the older generation's addition to the dramatic mix, the plot thickens. A predictable but highly amusing subplot involves Colonol Craven and another Ibsen Club member, Dr. Paramore (Chris Mixon, believably self-absorbed, blindly ambitious, but with a heart). It turns out that Craven is under the care of Paramore who has diagnosed him as suffering from a fatal liver ailment that he's discovered. Though all science and no play have kept Paramore a dull and lonely bachelor, he does have a crush on Julia . Revelations about the Paramore's discovery, the results of Charteris's self-serving scheme to help the socially inept doctor woo Julia are hardly surprising but watching them unravel is lots of fun.
In addition to the clever Shavian take on the Edwardians' coming to grips with the new sexual mores, the generational divide and the scientific community, Shaw poked fun at his own experience as a theater critic by hanging that professional tag on Joseph Cuthbertson prompting his friend Craven to exclaim "How jolly it must be to be able to go to the theatre for nothing!"
One character not found in some published versions of the play and absent from most production is Julia Craven's beloved pet, Doodie. In Mr. Kaikonnen's staging Doodie gets more than a mere mention. Since Mr. Kaikkonnn was able to freshen up his production with a number of such smart touches, I did find myself wishing he'd applied a blue pencil for a more streamlined production. The scenes involving the younger feminist Craven sister Sylvia, who's really a peripheral character could easily withstand a nip and tuck. This also goes for the use of in character (butler and maid) prop movers instead of uncostumed stagehands to do the nessary rearranging to allow Jo Winlarski's handsome and smartly flexible set to shift from the widow Tranfield's home, to the Ibsen Club and to Paramore's office. However, since there are two of these set changes, these interludes would also benefit from losing a few minutes.
With the excellent production values (special kudos to Sam Fleming for the handsome costumes for both the ladies and gentlemen) and acting, even at a somewhat too long 2 1/2 hours, this minor Shaw play is quite a major pleasure. For more information about Bernard Shaw's life and works with quotations and links to his reviews, see our Shaw Backgrounder
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