Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"You Never Can Tell" - Simply Delightful

By Judd Hollander

The Pearl Theatre Company starts its 30th anniversary season in high style with a sparkling production of Bernard Shaw's rarely performed work You Never Can Tell. Presented jointly by the Pearl and the Gingold Theatrical Group, the play offer a hilarious look at love, courtship, family ties that bind and a gentle poke at the Oscar Wilde classic The Importance Of Being Earnest. The connection between these two plays explained in the You Never Can Tell show program. 

In an English seaside town at the turn of the twentieth century Valentine (Sean McNall), a "5 shilling dentist", is pulling the tooth of Dolly Clandon (Emma Wisniewski), a flighty and repressive young girl, who's about to come of age. She also changes subjects at the drop of a hat while chattering on continuously about everything under the sun. These personality traits are shared by her twin brother Philip (Ben Charles), who enters Valentine's office shortly thereafter. Taking a liking to Valentine, the siblings invite him along for lunch, where they will be joined by their older sister Gloria (Amelia Pedlow) and their mother Margaret (Robin Leslie Brown). Margaret and her brood have been living in Portugal for the past 18 years where Margaret has become something of a celebrity, publishing books about life, love, etiquette, etc. as it applies to 20th Century morality. Margaret also becoming a sort of spokesperson for the cause, a position for which Gloria is being groomed to take over, Gloria being every inch the modern woman.

However lunch plans go completely askew when Valentine's guest, one Fergus Crampton (Bradford Cover), invited sight unseen to the luncheon by Dolly and Philip as Valentine already had a previous engagement with him, turns out to be the children's long absent father and Margaret's husband. Margaret and Fergus' marriage being a long-simmering wound that has never healed. There's also the matter of Valentine and Gloria, who become instantly smitten with one another the moment they first lock eyes, thus adding to a bit of romantic tension to the proceedings.

Light as a soufflé, sharp as a satirical bee sting - with a two and a half hour running time that just zips by - this production of You Never Can Tell is a winner from start to finish. Much of the credit being due to the direction of David Staller, the only person to have directed performances of all 65 of Shaw's plays. Here, Staller knows exactly what he needs to do to make the story come completely alive, having the characters play their roles completely straight but with just a touch of physical exaggeration in their movements and gestures. Or in Valentine's case, with leaps onto the couch. These directorial decisions moving the play into the arena of gentle farce but never into complete parody.

Many of Shaw's favorite topics and themes are present in the text. These include poking fun at the legal and medical professions, the consciousness of one's class status and an exploration of just what marriage entails. That last point illustrated here with both a marriage unfulfilled and one which may or may not succeed depending on what happens before the "I dos" are said - if they are said at all.

The cast is superb throughout. McNall is wonderful as Valentine, at first seemingly a hard working and honest fellow, who lost his two previous practices because he dared to tell his patents the truth rather than what they wanted to hear. But when Valentine sees Gloria and love strikes him right between the eyes, as well as in the heart, McNall launches into one of the most perfect reverse courtships ever seen on the stage; begging, pleading and changing course time and again. All the while accepting Gloria's not always kind compliments and putting himself down - all done with hyper kinetic energy - so she doesn't know which way to turn. Although Valentine isn't above a little jealousy at times, be it warranted or not. Pedlow is great fun as Gloria, a so-called modern woman - a common fixture in many of Shaw's play - who finds her well laid out life upended when reality gets too close. It's a testament of the actress's performances that she makes an often stereotypical role seem fresh and human, so one can easily emphasize with what she's going through when she experiences love for the perhaps the first time.

Brown nicely carries off Margaret, an older, wiser and at times surprisingly less cynical version of Gloria. She's also someone on the run from a failed marriage who was forced to reinvent herself in order to survive. Cover is very interesting as Fergus, perhaps the most shaded character in the piece. A hard and irritable man when we first meet him, and someone with old-fashioned values, Fergus clearly has unresolved issues regarding his marriage, although he is quite willing to take his share of the blame for the failure of said union. The scenes between Fergus and Gloria, with one or the other making awkward attempts at reconciliation, are surprisingly intimate and ultimately touching, allowing for a sort of quiet reflection in the midst of all the chaos occurring around them.

Wisniewski and Charles are very good as Dolly and Philip, siblings on perennial overdrive. They are also two of the hardest characters in the play to bring off properly, as they could have easily come across with an aura of sameness in their conversations, or simply felt downright annoying, their constant chatter and antics disrupting the flow of the story. Instead, the actors make their characters not only completely endearing but also fun to watch. It also helps that the two have great comic timing together and play off one another perfectly.

Dan Daily does a perfect job as Walter, a waiter. An English gentleman through and through and who probably sets some kind of theatrical record for saying "sir" the most times in a performance, Daily offers up a strong mixture of dry wit and common sense, as well as a reminder of the class consciousness that quietly permeates the play. An issue nicely explored with Walter's interaction with the rest of the characters, including a scene with his son Walter (Zachary Spicer), a well-regarded barrister, who's called in to help the family through the various legal troubles that arise after their unexpected reunion. Son Walter doing a nice job combining a cool head with just a bit of the bombastic in an attempt to allow everyone to come to a sort of understanding about what they think they want. Dominic Cuskern is fine in the role of Finch, the family lawyer, retained by both Margaret and Fergus for all these years. Finch is a man with a quiet way of speaking who turns out to be no match for the more fast-talking people around him. Cuskern does however, get off some wonderful double takes, along with an occasional air of befuddlement and who, like the audience, finds himself carried along by the conversations and events that are unfolding.

Staller, as mentioned above, is simply letter perfect in his direction. The various costumes by Barbara A. Bell are wonderful to behold, the outfits alternating between bright, beautiful (especially some of the garments Gloria and her mother wear); and in the men's cases - sharp and clean-lined. Lighting by Stephen Petrilli is very good, as are the various sets by Harry Feiner. Sound design by M.L. Dogg works well, as does the dancing by Wisniewski and Charles, which is used as a sort of transition between scenes, adding nice touch to the proceedings.

You never call tell what's going to happen in life, as the elder Walter mentions more than once. However there is absolutely no doubt that one would be hard-pressed to not completely enjoy the Shaw production currently holding court at the Pearl Theatre Company space. Simply delightful in every way, this is a production that should definitely not be missed. So don't miss it!

You Never Can Tell

by Bernard Shaw

Featuring: Sean McNall (Mr. Valentine), Emma Wisniewski (Dolly Clandon), Ben Charles (Philip Clandon), Robin Leslie Brown (Mrs. Margaret Clandon), Amelia Pedlow (Gloria Clandon), Bradford Cover (Walter Boon), Dominic Cuskern (Finch McComas), Zachary Spicer (Walter Bohun)

Scenic Designer: Harry Feiner
Costume Designer: Barbara A. Bell
Lighting Designer: Stephen Petrilli
Sound Designer; M.L. Dogg
Dramaturg: Kate Farrington
Casting Director: Stephanie Klapper Casting
Production Manager and Technical Director: Gary Levinson
Presented by The Pearl Theatre Company and the Gingold Theatrical Group

The Pearl Theatre
555 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-563-9261 or www.pearltheatre.org

Running Time: Two Hours, 30 Minutes (including one intermission)

Closes: October 13, 2013

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