THE BLOG
09/15/2013 07:29 pm ET | Updated Nov 15, 2013

First Nighter: David Staller Tells Bernard Shaw's "You Never Can Tell" Rather Well

David Staller is likely the current world authority on George Bernard Shaw. For quite some time, under the auspices of the Gingold Theatrical Group--which he founded in memory of Hermione Gingold--he's been working like a demon to perpetuate Bernard Shaw's works. (Shaw disliked his first given name and didn't use it, surely a fact Staller knows well.)
For this purpose, the enterprising Staller has effectively shunted his successful acting career aside while producing and directing monthly readings of every Shaw play in the canon--at this point more that twice through.
So who better to tap for helming a full-scale revival of a Shaw work than the enterprising chap, who--bearded now for several years--resembles his idol more each day? Maybe no one, and the Pearl Theatre Company deciders are taking no chances. They've asked Staller to shoulder responsibilities for the rarely seen You Never Can Tell. (The comedy hasn't shown up on Broadway since a brief 1986-7 run--with Uta Hagen, Philip Bosco, Victor Garber and Amanda Plummer among its Shavians.)
You Never Can Tell, sometimes considered Shaw's response to Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest, unfolds for the most part in the public rooms of the Marine Hotel at an English seaside resort. There, Mr. Valentine (Sean McNall), referring to himself as a "five-shilling dentist" and woefully destitute, becomes entangled with the family of Mrs. Margaret Clandon (Robin Leslie Brown) and mostly, he wishes, with beautiful, independent Clandon daughter Gloria (Amelia Pedlow).
For the remainder of the talky--this is Shaw, folks--action, Valentine attempts to woo the aloof Gloria, while her ceaselessly playful brother Philip (Ben Charles) and sister Dolly (Emma Wisniewski) and estranged father, Fergus Crampton (Bradford Cover) carry on. They're all regularly attended by legal retainer Finch McComus (Dominic Cuskern) and a pre-Jeeves waiter called Walter (Dan Daily).
Among the issues bandied about include the possibility of love between the well heeled (Gloria) and the down-at-heel (Valentine) and, more pragmatically, Crampton's right to custody of the three children he and Mrs. Clandon have brought into being. But Shaw's real purpose is-- customary with him, of course--upending every bit of stale conventional law to which society is bent on adhering.
The pithy part of any Shaw scene is when characters square off against each other in barely veiled debate. "Don't you think," Mr. Valentine asks Gloria, "it horrible that a man and a woman can hardly know one another without being supposed to have designs of that [marriage] kind? As if there were no other interests--no other subjects of conversation--as if women were capable of nothing better?" She instantly replies, "Now you are beginning to talk sensibly, Mr. Valentine."
Similar exchanges--more often than not framed as comic--pepper the proceedings, infusing sequence after sequence with ear-dazzling verve. Many of them are handed to Walter, who not only gets to toss off the title phrase repeatedly but who also says about his lawyer son, "If it's a little against a barrister to have a waiter for a father, sir, it's a little against a waiter to have a barrister for a son." He's also the philosopher who, contemplating whether Gloria should marry penniless Mr. Valentine, declares with unarguable wisdom, "All matches are unwise."
We all know that Shaw's iconoclastic dialog requires actors capable of speaking it with the proper flare. There's so much a director, including one as versed as Staller, can do if his players aren't up to the demanding assignment
The resident Pearl Theatre Company has proved more than competent in the past. But this outing, aside from Pedlow, Cuskern and Daily (for whom someone should be writing a tangy play about W. C. Fields), the actors give the impression during the first half (Staller has adapted Shaw into two acts) that they're playing at Shaw rather than playing him. There's a good deal of posturing in both word and deed--too much of it, actually, and it means the laughs that Shaw's lines and situations should be getting are minimized.
Something marvelous happens in the second act, however, indicating that each troupe member--McNall and Brown, chief among them--has known all along exactly what to do. Certainly Zachary Spicer--who only appears in this half as Walter the waiter's deus ex machina barrister son Walter--knows what glint and spark is required. Even the seemingly less experienced Charles and Wisniewski find the right footing for the footloose, fancy-free young bloods.
Also N. B.: In the past Pearl seasons, productions have been looking a trifle underdone, due possibly to financial problems. Not this outing. Harry Feiner has created a stylish set and a two-piece show curtain on which are illustrations plugging things like that five-shilling dental work. Costume designer Barbara A. Bell has gussied up the cast in period clothes. For the women, she's made certain that their male-influenced daytime attire is accessorized with cravats held in place by tiepins. She hasn't forgotten that this is Shaw as early women's-liberation-backer.
In a program director's note, Staller reports that when You Never Can Tell was first done, the actors quit in rebellion against parts they felt were unplayable because of psychological inconsistencies. Evidently, they didn't understand their author's inflexible conviction that in life up is often down, black is often white, et cetera, and that, well, you never can tell as to when which condition will prevail.
(Full disclosure: Twice when Staller was romping through the Shaw trove, he commandeered reviewers to tackle the Androcles and the Lion roles. I was one of them and therefore am acquainted with, and have been directed by, the GBS flame-keeper. Let's just say his expertise exceeded mine, which, for this subsequent review purpose, is neither here nor there.)

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Be the most interesting person at your dinner party.