George Bernard Shaw is at his best when he doesn’t take his social mission too seriously, when he is upending gender and class norms like a merry prankster instead of a dogmatic moralist. Thus, a line like, “Women have to unlearn the false good manners of their slavery before they acquire the genuine good manners of their freedom,” reaches much more sympathetic ears in the context of a farce than in that of soapbox realism. The Pearl Theatre seems to know this well—two years ago, they produced a delightful Philanderer and now they are opening their thirtieth season with an equally delightful You Never Can Tell.
Mrs. Margaret Clandon (Robin Leslie Brown), a thoroughly modern woman, has lived in Madeira for eighteen years with her three children, twins Dolly (Emma Wisniewski) and Philip (Ben Charles) and their elder sister Gloria (Amelia Pedlow). Returning to a small seaside town in England, she immediately bumps into the husband she fled, Fergus Crampton (Bradford Cover), while Gloria is assaulted by the immediate and helpless love of a local dentist, Mr. Valentine (Sean McNall). Dolly and Philip, slightly undeveloped, run around hysterically laughing at their own jokes and struggling to fit social norms, and a philosophical, impeccably professional waiter (Zachary Spicer) watches over all the action, never letting on how savvy he might be.
It seems that the seaside town serves the same purpose for Shaw as the forest does for Shakespeare—this is a space where, far away from London society, his characters can indulge in their more mischievous but also their more kind-hearted natures. Thus, a sense of clean fun permeates every scene in this production, and as usual the Pearl cast is flawless. Mr. McNall, a personal favorite of mine, is wonderfully assured and can say such atrocious things as, “I didn’t respect your intellect: I’ve a better one myself: it’s a masculine specialty,” without losing any good will from his audience. Mr. Cover, who is making the role of the foppish patriarch a specialty, is a consistently funny foil to the lunacy that surrounds him, and Ms. Wisniewski and Mr. Charles—playing screeching, maniacal brats who could very easily become annoying in the hands of inferior actors—perform admirably.
George Bernard Shaw, ever the reformer, meant You Never Can Tell to be a problem play dressed in the clothing of a meaningless farce. Whichever way you take it, you will likely leave the theater light-footed and thoroughly charmed.
You Never Can Tell runs through October 13th at the Pearl Theatre. 555 W. 42nd Street New York, NY. 2 hours 40 minutes. One intermission.