Sometimes you really can tell. And I will tell you that T. Schreiber’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell is an utterly charming night at the theater. This well-done production does an excellent job of exploring the depths of Shaw’s words, making a somewhat dated play energized and relevant. From the minute the four servants of the play make the curtain speech in the intimate theater, You Never Can Tell endears itself to the audience. Here I must praise Robert Verlaque’s directing for his attention to detail. The simple act of having actors make the cell-phone and safety announcements is a formality that he uses instead to begin to establish character. The four servants are dispersed through the production in a way that proves once again that good characterization means that no part is small.
Of course, once the play has begun, we are introduced to our charismatic protagonist, the dentist Valentine (Lowell Byers). He is pulling out the tooth of an excitable lady named Dolly (Noelle P. Wilson), who is shortly joined by her brother Phil (Seth James). After discovering that the two siblings have no idea who their father is, the set-up for a series of coincidences and many instances of what the program refers to as the “Shavian paradox” (a way of saying the right thing at the wrong time).
The banter is witty and the comedy is drawing room, but it is the actors’ charisma and timing that keeps one engaged. Wilson’s bubbly energy and full commitment are perfectly balanced with James’s ability to switch between co-conspirator and more-mature brother. Their excellent comic timing immediately ingratiates them with the audience, and their duo becomes a solid anchor for the performance. It is by their interactions with these two that we learn what we do about all of the other characters, all of which are well-played in their own right. We see Gloria (Jessica Osborne) in all of her beauty and patience, Walter (Peter Judd) in his extreme affability, and Mrs. Clandon (Lucy Avery Brooke) in her motherly authority.
In the midst of all of the confusion of finding their father, there exists another matter of the heart. The love story between Valentine and Gloria is both humorous and touching. Byers and Osborne have good chemistry, and it is easy to root for them. There is a small matter of a vocal tick, as Osborne is often not “on her voice.” In other words, she does not fully support her words, causing the actress to have an affected manner of speaking that sounds constantly on the brink of tears. This is an understandable character choice, but I think it would be far more successful to be used at certain times, rather than as an overall treatment. But this is not to say that Osborne’s acting does not make up for this weakness, which it does. In a good love story, you should always want the characters to be together, which is precisely what happens here as a direct result of both of these actors.
The actors also have the benefit of a surprisingly versatile set. I say surprisingly because when I first looked at it I had no idea that it was movable. Although it is clear that they are working within budgetary constraints, Chris Minard’s design gives a good enough illusion of wealth. The scene changes sometimes take a bit of time, but it is the actors who do them, and they are therefore pleasant to watch. Andy Cohen’s sound design and Eric Cope’s lighting also help convince us that we are at a seaside resort.
Lucy Avery Brooke’s bio ends with the line, “She is grateful to all for reminding her that good theater is an actor’s best home.” Good theater is an audience member’s and a critic’s best home as well. Shows like You Never Can Tell make me happy. I enjoy seeing talented theater artists producing good work, and leaving with an audience who is smiling and laughing. You never can tell what you’re going to see when you walk into a theater, but you should walk into the Gloria Maddox Theatre and see You Never Can Tell .