The first non-Shakespeare show in this year’s American Players Theatre season, George Bernard Shaw’s early 20th century dramatic debate, Misalliance, works much better on paper than it does on the stage. In principal, the idea of a play consisting almost exclusively of characters having lengthy discussions about love, marriage, justice and so on without much real action is a very clever one. In practice, it can be very difficult to sit through.
Chicago actress Carrie A. Coon (who starred in Anna Christie with the Madison Rep last year) stars as Hypatia Tarleton, the restless daughter of the wealthy underwear magnate John Tarleton (Jonathan Smoots). Things seem perfectly dull in the house as things begin. All the characters seem nearly content to play out Shaw’s debate with only the slightest hint of any real action. True, there is a great deal of wit in what’s being sad, but it merely feels. Characters lounge around inside talented actors dressed in conspicuously tidy Rachel Healy costumes as everything rests in a tasteful early 20th-century Takeshi Kata set. Then a plane crashes into a building offstage and everything gets considerably more interesting.
At some point early into the play’s first stretches, Bentley goes offstage to be intolerable elsewhere and in comes Lord Summerhays (Brian Mani) – a friend of the family. Mani is fun here. His character has a tendency for the type of humor Mani is so good at delivering . . . sparkling, little unassuming bits of semantic cleverness that creep up in response to things other characters say. Lord Summerhays has some entertaining bits of dialogue with Hypatia. He’s an older man taken with the younger woman who seems a bit taken with him as well and marriage is proposed between the two of them. Actually, marriage is proposed quite often in Misalliance – it’s a refreshing little parade of diversions the playwright has concocted to pass the time between the play’s beginning and end, which ends up being a central part of the play.
Shaw seems intent on exploring the nature of love and marriage between many different pairings within the ensemble. There’s also this whole theme of women beginning to become individuals that Shaw wanted to explore. Apparently, he felt as though men at the turn of the last century desperately pursued women who would be obedient to them while secretly wanting someone who would actually be their equal. As this theory goes, a woman who crashes into the play in the aforementioned plane represents Shaw’s ideal of an independent woman – Polish acrobat Lina Szczepanowska, played here by the charmingly irreverent Tracy Michelle Arnold. Arnold puts in an overwhelmingly memorable performance in a collage of outstanding performances. Misalliance is easily the best show in the APT’s 2007 season thus far. VS
The American Players Theatre’s production of Misalliance runs through October 6 in Spring Green. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 608-588-2361 or online at www.playinthewoods.org.