Zachary Spicer, a Sherlock Holmes in black cape and mask, walks off with the Pearl Theatre’s production of Shaw’s 1875 seaside comedy and seventh play (now through October 13 at 555 West 42nd Street), chiding the ensemble like an Obama IRS officer, told to keep harassment to a minimum, “Oh, yes, you did; you may not know it, but you did.” It’s a “theatrical” role and a stylish interpretation (Shaw asks for a hefty middle-aged lawyer and Spicer is lean and young, working minimally and pursuing the acting adage to “walk on the stage with a secret”). It’s also the jolt of stage magnetism we’ve been waiting for in an otherwise well-meaning, if mild, evening of contrivances, missing some of the fizz we can expect from high comedy or Shaw, much less the show’s advertising poster: a champagne bottle just uncorked. The lack of a buzz may not entirely be the fault of the actors or the director–the original 1900 production confounded the original cast, who were unsure how to play the indecisive and contradictory roles, caught between social acceptability, intellectual thought, and heart. Shaw canceled the original production after six matinees (he thought the actors “lacerated” his “very soul”). However, five years later it would return to roaring acclaim. Part of the continued appeal (a British You Never Can Tell will also be broadcast this October on BBC Radio 3) might be the proto-Woody Allen neurotics, the wimpy lead, a dentist (Sean McNall), now on his last nickel, intellectualizing love before (Amelia Pedlow) the “New Woman” (one that Shaw confessed attracted and scared him):
May I ask just this one question? Is your objection an objection to marriage as an institution, or merely an objection to marrying me personally?
The Pearl cast details miniatures, some more precise than others, but Shaw would probably think them flat, lacking eccentricity (let us not forget Shaw was pretty “eccentric” himself, as a Fabian socialist, advocate of eugenics, and a fascist sympathizer; his vegetarianism is a lesser idiosyncrasy). Contemporary Americans might also notice the writer’s tendency toward being too slow to the point, regarding overprotected lives in a conventional story—it’s an echo of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Shaw’s version of a West End hit, where he wanted to appeal to “perfectly commonplace people.” Eliza Doolittle, impatient with the moonings of an upper class suitor, Freddy, in My Fair Lady protests the delays, “Show me,” she sings, and contemporary, commonplace youth might find the romance here hopelessly quaint, even if they agree with the analysis—they also might find the music underscoring some of the scenes, particularly one between father and daughter, too sentimental:
VALENTINE: I'm honestly trying to be sensible–scientific–everythingthat you wish me to be. But–but–oh, don't you see what you have set to work in my imagination?
GLORIA (with indignant, scornful sternness): I hope you are not going to be so foolish–so vulgar–as to say love.
VALENTINE (with ironical haste to disclaim such a weakness): No, no, no. Not love: we know better than that. Let's call it chemistry. You can't deny that there is such a thing as chemical action, chemical affinity, chemical combination–the most irresistible of all natural forces. Well, you're attracting me irresistibly–chemically.
“You never can tell,” refers to the fact that anything can happen in life, when we least expect it—the reiterated line, like a NY Lottery player's "Hey, you never know," is spoken by a waiter who understands how to talk to the upper classes, smoothing their feathers after each minor catastrophe. It’s a role that has been played notably by Ralph Richardson and Edward Fox, among others. This only raises the bar higher for the Pearl, and the classics they produce—not only does an often anachronistic text have to be reanimated, but it also needs to stand up to a previous, often legendary, production (which the company did with A Moon for the Misbegotten). Here, the question seems to come down to sharpness—which, fortunately, in the last act, Spicer can deliver on with his Hail Mary pass. With so many people interested in the arts and pursuing acting in New York City, for all the technique, for all the analysis, it still comes down to probably the simplest (and hardest) advice of all: being able to take the stage.
Also with Emma Wisniewski, Ben Charles, Robin Leslie Brown, Bradford Cover, Dan Daily, and Dominic Cuskern. Directed by David Staller.
Copyright © by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved. Source used: A Guide to the Plays of Bernard Shaw by C. B. Purdom, © 1963, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York.