*published on May 7, 2012 in The EDGE
Let me begin with an admission; I am a Shavian novice. It is an embarrassment as I am half Irish and spent decades in the theater. I dove headlong into James Joyce, delved a bit with Oscar Wilde, O’Casey, Yates, Beckett and beyond; so how did I miss Shaw?
Watching “Man and Superman,” I sat alternating between guffaws and gob smackedness at the Irish Repertory Theater, a place I have also never been, and was over-the-moon with happiness.
I felt as if my brain had been scrubbed clean of the detritus of modern fluff and in its place was the glory of word play, political humor, true class struggles, national themes, and women’s rights. All were so well wrought that at first I thought I had tumbled into Bartlett’s most beloved quotations. Was all this Shaw?
But back to the play. The Irish Rep bills it as a comedy of hellish proportions because their production includes the full rendition of Don Juan in Hell as a second act opener. Often this dream sequence is extracted and performed as a stand-alone, one-act play.
This full version is produced in conjunction with the Gingold Theatrical Group, a non-profit, which runs PROJECT SHAW and is headed by David Staller, who flawlessly directed “Man and Superman.” In the notes it says that “Man and Superman” takes place “in the present.”
The present is 1905, and that time is beautifully shown in a three-quarter set by James Noone and via costumes of soft neutrals like ecru, peach, and grays, by Theresa Squire. Thanks to these visuals the audience embraces the authenticity of our peek into the early 20th century.
“Man and Superman” blends social satire and philosophy. This was the direction Shaw believed drama should take: plays animated by ideas. In fact, Shaw was awarded The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925 “for his work, which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty.”
“Man and Superman” tells the story of two rivals: John Tanner (a wealthy, politically-minded intellectual who values his freedom) and Ann Whitefield (a charming, scheming hypocritical young woman who wants Tanner as a husband). Once Tanner realizes that Miss Whitefield is hunting for a spouse (and that he is the only target), he attempts to flee, only to find out that his attraction to Ann is too overwhelming to escape.
The beautiful and artistically manipulative Janie Brookshire, who brings a wealth of classical dramatic training and experience effortlessly to the stage, plays Ann. Ann’s prey, Jack Tanner, is embodied by the slippery, silver-tongued Max Gordon Moore. It is a pleasure to watch them slip each other’s grasp and finally fall into a swoon in each other’s arms.
Of course there are the other players pulling strings and angling for opportunity. First, my favorite Brian Murray last seen on Broadway in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Here he is head of household, the blustering, sometimes blundering, but beguiling Mr. Ramsden. There is poor Octavius who pines for Ann so convincingly in the hands of Will Bradley that you’d think he was actually wounded at each performance.
There is a pack of brigands, lead by Jonathan Hammond, who attempt to rob Jack Tanner as he flees Ann in his shiny new motorcar. Hammond then shows up in the famous dream sequence playing an amazing devil in a fun-packed hell where the cast reunites as different characters.
Ann has a sister, Violet, Margaret Loesser Robinson, who is secretly married to — GASP — an American, Hector, played by Zachary Spicer. Both are wonderfully nervous, and furtive, and finally united openly in love. Of course both kids have parents: Violet’s mama is the amazing Laurie Kenney, lauded and seen nearly everywhere, and Hector’s papa is played with penny-pinching gusto by Paul O’Brien.
But knowing the plot, and that the actors are brimming with talent, that the visuals are enthralling and the direction wonderful only tells you the tip of what makes this an evening worth rushing to. The words, the cadence, the joy in dark humor, the thrust and parry of political swordplay is swoon-inducing.
I would have liked to just extract quotes and list them, the way they begin and end the show. But a review tells more than the quotable quotes. Lucky me to discover Shaw; and lucky you to get a ticket to “Man and Superman” at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
“Man and Superman” runs through June 17 at the Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd Street. For tickets or info call 212-727-2737 or visit http://www.irishrep.org/manandsuperman.html