In a 1930 introduction to The Philanderer, George Bernard Shaw writes, “There is a disease to which plays as well as men become liable with advancing years. In men it is called doting, in plays dating. The more topical the play the more it dates. The Philanderer suffers from this complaint.” Reading it, one might be inclined to agree with Shaw; though it nicely lampoons both those who pride themselves on being intellectual progressives and the stodgy men who stand in their way, the social problems it addresses are by today fairly trite: is a man’s love more important than his respect? What is women’s place in intellectual society? How is the “Old Guard” to deal with outrageous sexual behavior of the young, turn-of-the-century Londoners? Mrs. Warren’s Profession, another of Shaw’s “plays unpleasant,” was revived at the Comedy Theatre in London several years ago and the result was leaden and plodding; those characters’ problems were simply too alien, and director Michael Rudman took no effort to make them relevant today.
Fortunately, the new revival at the Pearl Theatre plays down the didacticism in favor of a comedy of manners: the eponymous Leonard Charteris (Bradford Cover) is a leading member of the Ibsen Club, a group of unmanly men and unwomanly women who worship the playwright for his dedication to “advanced views.” Much to Charteris’ chagrin, a Miss Julia Craven (Karron Graves), who only took up with the club as a fad, has fallen hopelessly in love with him, and as a result his affair with the truly Ibsenist Grace Tranfield (Rachel Botchan) begins to fall apart. He even goes so far as to propose to Grace (synonymous with blasphemy among his type) in order to get rid of Julia.
In this context, Julia is something of an uncomfortable character; she is the kind of hysterical woman of chauvinistic fantasy, flailing her body all over the stage in a desperate attempt win over the one person who can give her life meaning: her man. By bagging her love, Charteris proves his emotional depth, and by rejecting her in favor of more and more women, he validates his own virility. In other words, this plays off not so much as an “advanced man” brushing away the old as a cad treating women like tools in his personal sexual and intellectual education. A “charming philander” this is not—all of which, of course, may be Shaw’s point, but Julia as well as a rote happy ending feel falsely wrought nonetheless.
Perhaps, however, this is the wrong tone to take—the Pearl’s production is all in good fun, which is a wise choice, since they are packed with fine comic actors. Mr. Cover, sporting the same ridiculous facial hair he did in last fall’s The Bald Soprano, manages to make his squirming and scheming consistently funny. (When Julia asks him, “Are you afraid of me?” he replies with a crisp, “Horribly.”) Dominic Cuskern and Dan Daily—the fathers of Julia and Grace—are also splendid, and it is thoroughly enjoyable to see how consistently scandalized they are when Charteris speaks openly about private matters. Finally, the tiny Shalita Grant (playing Julia’s younger sister, Sylvia) is an absolute delight; in full male dress and nearly a foot smaller than all the other actors, she walks around the stage squeaking out all the principles of the Ibsenists and insisting on being addressed by the more masculine “Craven.”
Who knew Shaw could be so much fun?