Talk, Glorious Talk

Misalliance may not be as well known as Bernard Shaw’s other country estate play, Heartbreak House, but Jeff Steitzer’s production of his seldom produced comedy at the Pearl Theatre makes it sparkle as brightly as any of the more famous plays. It’s talky, as Shaw always is, but what talk! A sterling cast wrings gallons of juice out of the intellectually stimulating dialogue. Shaw’s subjects encompass child-rearing, relations between the generations, sex, education, and conformity. Hypatia Tarleton (Lee Stark), whose father, John, is an underwear tycoon, has determined to marry weedy Bentley Summerhays (Steven Boyer), the sniveling son of a former colonial governor. Her choices are narrowing, Hypatia reckons, and Bentley is the best she thinks she can do.

However, Bentley is given to tantrums to get his way, and they naturally irritate Hypatia’s brother, John (Bradford Cover), a solidly dependable worker in his father’s factory who opposes his sister’s misalliance. Meanwhile, Dominic Cuskern’s Lord Summerhays has himself approached Hypatia about marriage, stealing his son’s thunder.

After a plane with two passengers crash-lands in the Tarletons’ greenhouse, scattering shards of debris in Bill Clarke’s bright, comfortable sun room, more romantic entanglements ensue. Hypatia falls for the pilot, dashing Joey Percival (a strapping yet stolid Michael Brusasco), who happens to be a schoolmate of Bentley’s. And Hypatia’s father falls for the passenger, Polish aviatrix Lina Szczepanowska, a woman from a family that makes it a point of honor that one member every day must risk his or her life—one of the wackiest conceits in all of Shaw's work.

Lina is fearless, strong, and independent—a 20th-century woman, or perhaps Shaw’s Superwoman. Erika Rolfsrud finds all the rich possibilities in the character: toughness and bravado, perhaps a hint of lesbianism in the way she disdains the men who worship her, and a streak of genuine spirituality. Lina reads the Bible “to remind myself that I have a soul.” (The accents, from Polish to northern brogue to lower-class, are a credit to dialogue director Dudley Knight.)

The debate covers age vs. youth, upper class vs. lower, and sex, rather unabashedly for 1909. The lower-class Mrs. Tarleton (the cheery Robin Leslie Brown, alternately prim and forward-thinking) is proud of her upward mobility and her loss of accent and lower-class values. “At 40,” she brags to Hypatia, “I talked like a duchess.” Ironically, she’s speaking only of her accent. Her discussion of her shock at discovering that duchesses and marchionesses converse about unmentionable subjects—like drainage—is a highlight in a play with many, and the way she shudders with discomfort at hearing the word “secreted” is just one hallmark of the shrewd and careful direction.

Strangely, the real hero in Misalliance isn’t the young Johnny, or Bentley, or Joey, but Dan Daily’s John Tarleton, a young man trapped in a middle-aged body. Tarleton is a self-made man who has what he calls "superabundant vitality," which includes a fair share of lust. Yet he's also an intellectual who funds free libraries. He wanted to be a writer of literature but found himself easily making money and unable to forgo it for art.

Tarleton is always urging authors on his listeners for mental stimulation. “Read Pepys' diary,” he advises (it helps to know that Pepys was candid about his sexual exploits), or “Read Dickens” (not the novels, but the letters to his family). And about the notion of Superman, “Read whatsisname”—Shaw himself, of course. Daily embodies the duality of the character, as well as the sense of his disappointments.

Through it all the cast sinks its teeth into Shaw’s characteristic zingers, such as Summerhays’ observation, “Democracy reads well, but it doesn’t act well.” Perhaps Lee Stark throws her arms about a bit too physically for a young woman in 1909—she seems almost as active as Lina—but she captures both Hypatia’s high spirit ("I want to be an active verb") and her dissatisfaction. Pearl regular Sean McNall acquits himself well as the burglar, an unaccustomed character part. And the running joke of Lina dragging various men off to the gymnasium is never overplayed. If you haven’t ever seen Shaw, this is a good place to start. And even if you have, you still may not conceive what a treat awaits you at the Pearl.

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