The Irish Repertory has not had a good year. First, there was Brian Friel’s stultifying, cringingly sentimental Dancing at Lughnasa, then Eugene O’Neill’s bloated, unbearable Beyond the Horizon. A Shavian comedy is just the kind of play that is needed to inject some life into this theater—and at first glance, Man and Superman seems to be that play: it is an easy comedy of manners about reluctant lovers chock-full of witty one-liners that even features an extended scene in hell in which Don Juan debates the nature of life with the Devil (Jonathan Hammond).
More specifically, the play concerns Jack Tanner (Max Gordon Moore), a “Life Force” worshiper and author of The Revolutionist’s Handbook who is so fixated on his own endless blathering that he fails to see that Ann Whitefield (Janie Brookshire), his new ward, is hopelessly in love with him. His forward-thinking views scandalize the old guard of London, personified by Roebuck Ramsden (Brian Murray), who is apparently only in the play to be shocked at every word out of Jack’s mouth. Then there is Jack’s buddy Octavius (Will Bradley), a committed Romantic, who is in love with Ann and thus completes the triangle: Octavius is in love with Ann, Ann is in love with Jack, and Jack is in love with himself. Binding the two acts is the aforementioned scene in hell, where Jack plays his preincarnation Don Juan, who is frustrated and bored in hell and ready to go to heaven where he can spend eternity in endless contemplation.
It sounds like it’s all good fun, but Man and Superman is far too bogged down in its ideas to be solid entertainment and its ideas are far too dated to be interesting propaganda. Don Juan in Hell, an act that is usually cut and sometimes performed on its own, is certainly the most interesting conceptually, but Juan’s philosophical tirades are exhausting. And it is not as if Shaw isn’t aware of this problem: one character moans, “If you would stick to the concrete, and put your discoveries in the form of entertaining anecdotes about your adventures with women, your conversation would be easier to follow,” while the Devil (who presumably has eternity to listen to this) complains about “the intolerable length” of his speeches. As for his views—women view men only as “a means to the end of getting children and rearing them,” “marriage is the most licentious of human instincts”—they may have been cutting edge in 1903 but have most definitely gone dull by now.
Amid this mess, there are a few decent performances. Mr. Moore handles his excruciating monologues like a trooper and does a good job balancing Jack’s obsession with ideas with his complete ignorance of human beings. And Mr. Hammond, a dark, Latin devil, is perfectly seductive as the misunderstood angel who just values hedonism over all else. However, Mr. Murray, who won a Tony around the same time Lucifer made his exit from Heaven, seems ready to retire—at the performance I attended, he delivered his lines with the halting awkwardness of one who can’t quite remember what he is supposed to say.
In 1939, James Joyce called Shaw “Barney-the-Bark.” In other words, there isn’t much to his bite. As true as this may have been seventy years ago, it is all the more painfully obvious now. The Pearl recently produced a nice Philanderer, but they dropped the social satire in favor of light comedy. Next time the Irish Rep should do the same.
Man and Superman runs through June 17th at the Irish Repertory Theatre. 132 W. 22nd Street New York, NY.