A production that makes Shaw's century-old ideas feel current – and very human
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 12, 2010
Austin Playhouse, 3601 S. Congress, 476-0084, www.austinplayhouse.com
Through Feb. 21
Running time: 2 hr, 25 min
Funny how your whole weekend can be thrown off by a little thing like an airplane crashing into your greenhouse. One minute, people of sturdy stock and moral fiber are studiously upholding the status quo of Edwardian society. Then, crash!
Suddenly, you have engagements being broken, young women chasing young men, middle-aged fathers mooning over a circus performer like schoolboys, and clerks brandishing pistols at captains of industry. Did I say the weekend thrown off? More like the social order thrown over.
Which may well have been what George Bernard Shaw had in mind in penning Misalliance back in 1910. The 20th century, with its new technological marvels such as the airplane, was plowing into all those starchy mores and traditions of the 19th century, not to mention still older institutions like the aristocracy, and sending them all arse over teacups. The aristocracy was fading, the working class was coming on strong, and women were walking out of the kitchen and into the workplace and voting booth. Victoria was gone, and she was not coming back.
Of course, in Shaw's self-proclaimed "Debate in One Sitting," what sparks the societal upheaval is not so much the crash of the plane – an event treated by most who witness it with all the distress of a stale crumpet at teatime – as the contents of the craft: the dashing young pilot Joey Percival and his comely passenger, the Polish aerialist Lina Szczepanowska. The former catches the eye of spirited Hypatia Tarleton, who wastes no time giving the heave-ho to her blue-blooded milksop of a fiancé and giving chase to the aviator, while the latter snares the attention of, well, pretty much everyone with a Y chromosome. The vitality of these visitors is enough to lure the upright gentlemen and ladies they drop in on off the path of custom, convention, and propriety, even to the point of forsaking betrothal and matrimony.
A century later, the notion of a woman choosing her own mate – or choosing no mate at all – may be old news, but the debate that Shaw conducts on their behalf still has a commanding vigor, especially when it's argued by actors with a command of his singular brand of disputatiousness, one generously spiked with Irish loquacity and wit. The cast of this Austin Playhouse production is such a bunch, and it's a pleasure watching them light into these speeches with their sharply articulated points of view. As underwear magnate John Tarleton, owner of the estate where the plane (and everything else) goes down, David Stahl revels in the assertiveness of a self-made man; when Tarleton punctuates some point he's made with a fervent note to read some author or other (Read Ibsen! Read Jefferson! Read John Stuart Mill!), Stahl delivers the admonition like a fencer thrusting his foil to the heart. Lara Toner takes a similar relish in his daughter's contrarian nature; she defies custom and pursues her man with a self-satisfied grin of a cat who's just dined on canary. Other players may be more understated – say, Bernadette Nason's drolly sensible Mrs. Tarleton, Michael Stuart's vermouth-dry Lord Summerhays, or Jason Newman's anxiously pursued Percival – but you can still sense their connection to the material; they're at home here. And it keeps Shaw's ideas, dated or not, feeling current.
That said, this is not a production that leaves you feeling the sharp edges of Shaw's political positions. Director Don Toner plays more toward the human comedy in the material, the fickleness and folly we display whenever we are attracted to one another, the feelings that are the banana peel on which our rectitude and righteousness slip and fall. It isn't that we lose the political dimension of Misalliance here, but we're inclined to see the social order upended by the crash of a human heart.