This George Bernard Shaw play at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (through August 30) provides some timely commentary for a work first produced 105 years ago. The feminist characters and viewpoints typical of Shaw don’t shock viewers today, as they did in an England just emerging from the Victorian era. But unexpectedly apt was Shaw’s skeptical take on the role of law enforcement. The play’s character Lord Summerhays, reflecting on his time as governor of Jenghiskahn, says:
Justice was not my business. . . . Men are not governed by justice, but by law or persuasion . . . by force or fraud, or both. . . . It is as well that you should know this, my young friend; so that you may recognize in time that anarchism is a game at which the police can beat you.
In a talk-back after the show with STNJ artistic director Bonnie Monte and members of the cast, we learned the play was not well received in its 1910 debut and not produced again for several decades. One critic called it “a debating society of a lunatic asylum,” but it has proved more popular in recent years, perhaps because its structure seems less radical today. Audience members who’d seen other productions commented that this one is lighter and livelier. Farce isn’t the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Shaw, but this version of the play had a great many laugh lines, expertly delivered by the outstanding cast.
The story takes place over the course of a single afternoon in the country house conservatory of wealthy underwear magnate John Tarleton. His son Johnny is a bore, and his daughter Hypatia is engaged to a very unlikely fellow, son of dignified Lord Summerhays. Mrs. Tarleton seems a bit dim, but perhaps there are things she finds it more convenient not to see.
This loosely jelled assemblage is turned upside down by the sudden appearance of an airplane [!], flying low, that crashes into the family greenhouse. From the wreckage emerge the dashing pilot and his last-minute passenger, whom he assumes is another gentleman but who, when the leather cap and goggles come off, turns out to be a Polish woman, both dare-devil and fitness devotee. All relationships are up for grabs from that moment forward.
Numerous proposals of marriage (or less permanent liaisons) ensue, and some of them would rank high in misalliance potential. The pilot quotes one of his three stepfathers, an Anglican priest, with perhaps the play’s most famous line: “If marriages were made by putting all the men’s names into one sack and the women’s names into another, and having them taken out by a blind-folded child like lottery numbers, there would be just as high a percentage of happy marriages as we have now.”
Other misalliances emerge between parents and children, and about that relationship, Shaw says elsewhere, “If you must hold yourself up to your children as an object lesson (which is not at all necessary), hold yourself up as a warning and not as an example.” This is advice amply illustrated by poor Mr. Tarleton and his daughter. “Depend on it,” he tells Lord Summerhays, “in a thousand years it’ll be considered bad form to know who your father and mother are.”
As always, the cast and production values are terrific, with special mention of Ames Adamson as John Tarleton and Erika Rolfsrud as his wife. At some point, a portable Turkish bath proves it’s more than an ornament.