Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"The Philanderer" - A Loving Exercise with a Gentle Touch

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Jacob J. Goldberg

The Pearl Theatre Company presents an enjoyable look at the battle of the sexes with a staging of Bernard Shaw's play The Philanderer, and if changing times and cultural sensibilities have dimmed some of its satiric edges, there is still a lot to be enjoyed in this production.

Leonard Charteris (Bradford Cover) is the philanderer of the title. When the play opens, in 1897 London, Charteris is happily proclaiming his love to Grace Tranfield (Rachel Botchan) and she to him. However Leonard's previous paramour, Julie Craven (the superb Karron Graves), is not about to give him up, storming into Grace's home and demanding Charteris return to her. Julia was originally happy with the open arrangement she and Leonard had. However now that Leonard has chosen Grace, Julia has decided she will accept nothing less than monogamous bliss with him.

In the midst of the arguing, Julia and Grace's fathers, Joseph Cuthbertson (Dominic Cuskern) and Colonel Daniel Craven (Dan Daily) arrive. Yet instead of relying on an elaborate lie or explanation Charteris instead confronts the situation head on, explaining that both women are in love with him, even the elder Cuthbertson points Charteris is "standing between two fathers".

The way Charteris handles things is in actuality an example of a new morality. At the time Shaw wrote this play England was feeling the influence of playwright Henrik Ibsen, who often wrote about strong woman, leading to talk about the equality of the sexes. Thus womanly woman or manly men are looked down upon by some of the characters in The Philanderer, i.e. those who would take advantage of their genders to get what they want. There's even an Ibsen Club through which all of the characters pass through. Charteris uses these concepts to extract himself from his current predicament by giving Julia to someone else, specifically one Dr. Percy Paramore (Chris Mixon) a bit of a quack, through quite earnest in his efforts and possessing an honest heart. Dr. Paramore has previously passed a medical death sentence on Colonel Craven, which allows Shaw to get in a few swipes at that profession, a frequent target of his. Helping Charteris in his efforts is Julia's sister Sylvia (Shalita Grant) who has so embraced the Ibsen philosophy she refuses to be addressed as a woman while at the club.

What Shaw also seems to be saying here is to be very careful what you wish for or you'll find yourself settling for far less than you should. Director Gus Kaikkonen nicely brings out the gentler points of the tale by letting things unfold in an unhurried manner, rather than in more farcical terms, and allowing the work to serve as a metaphor for people's perceptions as reflected in a changing world.

The production could, however benefit from a bit of cutting here and there, with some of the early scenes in the Ibsen Club going on a bit too long. Through it would be nice to see a list of rules of that govern the club, an institution that confounds Joseph Cuthbertson and Colonel Craven, members of an earlier generation, more than once.

Cover makes a great Charteris - a rapscallion and rogue, one honest to a fault ("perhaps I’m incapable of love") and ultimately content with his lot in life. He's also so disarming, with a humorous and self-deprecating quality about him, that he quickly endears himself to the audience.

Graves often steals the show as Julia, initially coming on like a blaze of fire. This is a wronged woman desperately in love, yet put in her place by Charteris and even more so by Grace, the latter giving her a non-nonsense lecture about the meaning and responsibilities of love. Julia also undergoes a major transformation during the course of the play, at points struggling to define herself in her search for happiness.

Grace also undergoes a series of emotional changes during the show, if not as markedly as Julia, moving from passion to reason and emotion to intellect. Botchan making the character a complex force to be reckoned with and who, like Julia, struggles to balance what she wants with what she believes is expected of her.

Cuskern and Daily work fine as the blustering fathers, with Daily doing a series of comical slow burns when he learns the true extent of his medical situation. Mixon is nicely amiable as the sad sack Dr. Paramore. Grant is okay though bit grating at times as Sylvia.

Scenic design by Jo Winiarski works very well, with the Pearl technical team doing a nice job with the different scene changes. The set of the Ibsen Club is especially good, offering a sort of overstuffed look at a bygone era.

This production of The Philanderer is quite a lot of fun, and if it is a bit dated, there's nothing wrong with examining the work with the benefit of hindsight.

The Philanderer
Featuring Bradford Cover (Leonard Charteris), Rachel Botchan (Grace Tranfield), Karron Graves (Julia Craven), Dominic Cuskern (Joseph Cuthbertson), Dan Daily (Colonel Daniel Craven), Chris Mixon (Dr. Percy Paramore), Shalita Grant (Sylvia Craven), Chris Richards (Page Boy and Butler)

Written by Bernard Shaw
Directed by Gus Kaikkonen
Scenic Design: Jo Winiarski
Costume Design: Sam Fleming
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Dramaturg: Kate Farrington
Fight Direction: Rod Kinter
Production Stage Manager: Erin Albrecht

Presented by The Pearl Theatre Company
New York City Center, Stage II

131 West 55th Street
Tickets: 212-598-1212 or http://www.pearltheatre.org/
Closes: February 19, 2012
Running Time: 2 Hours, 30 Minutes, with one intermission

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