Friday, September 13, 2013

97. Review of YOU NEVER CAN TELL (September 13, 2013)



Arriving at the Pearl Theatre last night was an adventure in itself, as I had to make my way from a restaurant on 9th Avenue and 42nd Street to 11th Avenue and 42nd in a torrential downpour such as we haven’t seen in New York since Hurricane Sandy. My pants and shirt were thoroughly soaked despite my having an umbrella, and my feet were worse, since I was wearing sandals. A colleague who was rushing through the storm with me lives next door to the Pearl and went up to change, bringing me down a bath towel, which I kept wrapped around my shoulders during the show like a blanket to keep from catching pneumonia.

Sean McNall and Amelia Pedlow.   

            Fortunately, sitting in the second row, I soon felt the warmth of George Bernard Shaw’s YOU NEVER CAN TELL, set at a seaside resort, with its witty dialogue, charming characters, youthful romance, farcical coincidences, fashionable clothes, and, for its time, up-to-date ideas about women, courtship, and family. All mingle agreeably in David Staller’s sprightly, if uneven, revival of Shaw’s 1897 comedy. On the one hand, there’s little that’s memorably excellent on display,  neither in the acting (fair to very good) nor the design components (serviceably attractive); on the other, the mix of vivacity, intelligence, and humor conspire to grow on you, forcing you gradually to abandon whatever skepticism you may have in the early scenes, when you must adjust your expectations to reality; by the final scene, you may even feel a gentle glow, like that of the Chinese lanterns adorning the set.

            The play begins in a dentist’s office in an English seaside town, where the attractive young dentist, Valentine (Sean McNall), is cheerfully struggling to survive on his 5-shilling plan (the same charge for each procedure), and where he soon meets a pair of high-spirited 18-year-old twins, Dolly (Emma Wisniewski) and Phil (Ben Charles), when Dolly needs to have a tooth extracted (a remarkably bloodless and painless job). He also meets their imposing mother, Mrs. Clandon (Robin Leslie Brown), a writer of books about advanced ideas, and her beautiful older daughter, Gloria (Amelia Pedlow). When Valentine and Gloria first set eyes on each other, it’s—bing!—love at first sight. The Clandon clan has just returned to England after 18 years of living in Madeira, after Mrs. Clandon moved there to flee an unhappy relationship with her husband. Over the course of four acts, Shaw proceeds to work out the romantic relationship between Valentine and Gloria, and to use the long arm of coincidence to bring the Clandon children (whose surname was changed by their mother) back into the presence—if not the embrace—of their long-separated father, the brittle, bad-tempered, but very rich Fergus Crampton (Bradford Cover), Valentine’s landlord, who angrily insists on his parental rights despite his having had nothing to do with raising his offspring. Through much of the action, the various characters’ needs are taken care of by the ultra-efficient old waiter, Walter (Dan Daily)—called William (after Shakespeare) by the twins—who’s given to spouting a pet phrase, “You never can tell.” In the last act, once again by playful coincidence, Walter’s barrister son, also called Walter (Zachary Spicer), enters from the hotel’s fancy ball wearing a cape, Venetian tricorn, and long-nosed commedia mask. He’s there at the recommendation of the family friend and solicitor, Finch McComas (Dominic Cuskern), to advise on a frivolous suit brought by Crampton. Via his magisterial pronouncements, he ensures that all the plot ends are neatly sewn up.

            Despite its well-crafted beginning, middle, and end, the plot is merely a shallow framework within which to develop a number of amusing characters who express their strong opinions; happily, these opinions are organic to those they belong to and rarely suggest the didactic pontificating of which Shaw is sometimes guilty. Among the topics covered are women’s rights in the (imminent) twentieth century (including the right to escape marital tyranny), the puzzling existence of love and desire among rational beings, and the difference between a parent’s earning (as opposed to requiring) respect from his children. Externally farce-like as it may be, internally the play makes you care about what these people think and feel.
Sean McNall and Amelia Pedlow. Photo: Al Foote III

            Mr. Staller’s direction keeps the energy level turned up, the dialogue well articulated, and the relationships clear. Now and then, he highlights a moment by altering the lights and bringing in a bit of music. Scene changes are performed choreographically by the actors to tuneful music, and one sequence has the irrepressible Dolly and Phil perform a period dance to cover the shift. There is also a sweetly staged curtain call, with a popping champagne bottle (courtesy of the waiter) to boot.

            Shaw’s plays usually require multiple sets with an abundance of furniture and furbelows, but Off Broadway companies with limited budgets must use their imaginations to find ways around his detailed requirements. Set designer Harry Feiner, for instance, places the first act dentist’s office far downstage in front of a painted drop so that he can then provide acts two through four with a more substantial, if simplified, scenic arrangement. I would have liked the sets to be more vividly colored, especially the one of the outdoors hotel terrace adjoining the beach, where the blandly painted sky is a muddy blue-green; in general, the sets are mildly pretty in a utilitarian sort of way. Barbara Bell’s very nice period costumes add much to the proceedings, and Stephen Petrilli’s lighting, while unobtrusive, adds some noteworthy touches when certain moments are chosen for romantic underlining. M.L. Dogg’s sound design includes lighthearted period music to further enhance the 1890s ambience.           
Robin Leslie Brown. Photo: Al Foote III

The actors assembled from the Pearl’s resident company for YOU NEVER CAN TELL range in quality and charisma, of course, but all are trained professionals able to navigate the required period style and accents. Ms. Wisniewski and Mr. Charles, who play the difficult roles of the twins, are believably youthful and rambunctious, but they manage the liveliness of characters better than their deeper feelings. Ms. Brown as the middle-aged Mrs. Clandon speaks in resonant tones that mark her commanding presence as an actress, but her dowdy wig robs the character of glamour. Her hairdo on the program cover would have been much more flattering. Mr. McNall’s Valentine, while enthusiastic and smart, is too actorish for my tastes, while Mr. Cover’s crusty Crampton is only superficially irritable, making it hard to sympathize with his struggle to humanize his behavior toward the end. Mr. Cuskern is appropriately stuffy as the once footloose but now uptight solicitor, and he gets laughs when he is forced to elude the playful Dolly in act four. Ms. Pedlow's Gloria is gloriously appealing as she twists and turns in her attempt to prevent sentiment from overwhelming reason; her performance and presence help put the show over the top.

Ben Charles and Emma Wisniewski. Photo: Al Foote III

The role that makes or breaks most productions of YOU NEVER CAN TELL is the waiter, and Mr. Daily does nothing special with it. He seems too pleasantly robust and conventional, without significant subtext to express the utter delight and pride he takes in his profession. Critic Desmond MacCarthy, reviewing Louis Calvert’s performance in 1905, wrote: “What a dissertation might be written upon William! William the leveler, William the impassive, William the imperturbably, universally kind!” Few of these colors emerge in the present portrayal. However, Mr. Spicer’s Walter Bohun (pronounced Boon), the Queens Council barrister who makes so dramatic an entrance in act four, brings with him a towering physical and vocal presence, and an air of just the right excess of self-assurance, with his constant reiterations of “Oh, yes you will. You think you won’t, but you will,” or the obverse, “Oh, no, you won’t. You think you will, but you won’t.”

Bottom row, from left: Bradford Cover, Amelia Pedlow, Sean McNall, Robin Leslie Brown. Standing, from left: Emma Wisniewski, Dominic Cuskern, Zachary Spicer, Dan Daily, Ben Charles. Photo: Al Foote III
Perhaps you’re thinking that sitting through 2 hours and 40 minutes of Shavian cleverness will make you squirm with boredom. If so, allow me to offer: “Oh, no, you won’t. You think you will, but you won’t.” But then again, you never can tell.

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