KPBS AIRDATE: May 20, 2005
Mismatched couples meet class consciousness and social commentary in George Bernard Shaw’s loquacious but amusing “Misalliance.” The play was a flop when it opened in London, shortly after it was written in 1910, but it made a big splash on this side of the pond when it premiered in New York in 1953. Still, it’s a talky, sometimes prolix ‘discussion play,’ which makes it a slog for some and an intellectual stimulant for others.
Acclaimed director Stephen Wadsworth, who gave us a brilliant “Don Juan” last year, is back at the Globe with his first Shaw production. It’s a partial success, though there are many luminous moments. The ingénue continually complains that everything around her is just “talk, talk, talk.” And we do know how she feels. Shaw is airing all his pet grievances, about class and gender distinctions, sex, courtship, marriage and parenthood, with some prescient polemic on feminism, socialism and even terrorism thrown in.
The setting is an English country house in Surrey, 1909, the home of a nouveau riche underwear magnate, the womanizing, forward-thinking, book-obsessed auto-didact John Tarleton. He and his aggressively doltish son; impetuous, mores-defying daughter; and sanguine, motherly wife are visited by an assortment of characters representing different social classes and political leanings, including an aristocratic, imperialist father and his effete, crybaby son; a brash and dashing pilot; an acrobatic dominatrix and a vengeful, gun-toting socialist. Everyone’s got secret longings, and sexual energy electrifies the air even as the discourse clouds it at times. The accents come and go, the acting styles vary, the pace is sometimes dizzying and in the first act, characters stride downstage and declaim, repeatedly. But the matchups are comical, the performances wonderfully colorful, and the sets, lighting and costumes beautiful.
Though the play may be a Victorian soap opera, the disquisitions require attention and careful listening, which isn’t everyone’s cup of English tea. But the conscientious will be rewarded with Shaw’s prophetic and ever-relevant questions about maintaining balance between tradition and innovation, age and youth, women and men, and the range of social strata. When adventure literally drops out of the sky, all the characters are forced to examine their prejudices, preconceptions and narrow horizons. They come to realize how they can understand and relate to one another and the play blossoms with unanticipated pleasure and possibility. Social, political and scientific upheaval still feature prominently a century after Shaw, even if our class hierarchy is less apparent, though no less present. Yet despite the comic and romantic relief, nearly three hours of social commentary may be heady to some but a headache to others.
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.