George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance comes sparklingly alive in Rosalind Productions’ smashing revival of his 1910 comedy.  

Unlike the recently reviewed “all-talk, no-action” Candida, Misalliance has enough unexpected plot twists to perk up even the most easily bored theatergoer and enough couplings and un-couplings to make this a precursor of the contemporary “romantic comedy.”  It’s not every Shaw play that has eight wedding proposals, a handsome young gun-toting anarchist hiding in a portable Turkish bath, and an airplane crash-landing into the garden of an English country mansion.

Misalliance centers around two well-to-do families in 1909 Surrey. The Tarletons are nouveaux riches who’ve made their fortune in the underwear business, while the Summerhays family represents “old money.”  At curtain up, Hypatia Tarleton (Abigail Rose Solomon) is engaged to be married to Bentley Summerhays (Orestes Arcuni), a “little squit of a thing.”  Though Bentley is already in his twenties, this is a young gentleman who has not yet given up the habit of throwing himself to the floor and screaming when threatened with a beating.  

Bentley’s father Lord Summerhays (Armin Shimerman) has long since given up hope of his son’s ever maturing. When Johnny Tarleton (Christopher Franciosa) smashes a punch bowl out of frustration with his spoiled young friend Bentley, it is with the full approval of Lord Summerhays, who declares, “I know only one person alive who could drive me to the point of having either to break china or commit murder; and that person is my son.”

Completing Act One’s cast of characters are Hypatia and Johnny’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Tarleton (Greg Mullavey and Maggie Peach).

Life in the English countryside and a cute-but-dull fiancé like Bentley leave Hypatia longing for something more, for (in her own words) “adventure to drop out of the sky,” a wish that comes true when a certain Joey Percival’s airplane is forced to make an emergency landing in the Tarletons’ garden.  (This was only six years after the Wright Brothers made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk.)

Joey (Nick Mennell) is precisely the kind of tall, dark, handsome (and exciting!) young man to turn a girl’s heart away from a spoiled brat like Bentley, coincidentally a former schoolmate of Joey’s.  The dashing young Joey is not alone in his crash landing.  Accompanying him is an adventurous young Polish woman named Lina Szczepanowska (Molly Schaffer), member of a famous family of acrobats and, in her own words, “strong … , skilful… , brave… , independent… , unbought.  I am all that a woman ought to be.”

From this point on, any talkiness that may have slightly bogged down Misalliance’s first act dissipates, leading to a second act that positively explodes with passion and surprises, not the least of which is the arrival of pistol-packing anarchist “Gunner” (David Clayberg), there to settle a score with the elder Tarleton.

Misalliance has been directed with style and verve by Elina de Santos, who has elicited vibrant performances from her entire cast.  The lovely Solomon is the perfect spunky heroine, cute Arcuni a petulant delight as Bentley, and handsome Franciosa suitably priggish as Johnny. As Joey, Mennell (a young Vince Vaughan) proves a dashing leading man with first-rate acting chops, and the bearded Clayberg is just right as the volatile, headstrong Gunner. Shimerman disappears into the skin of the very proper (yet still robust) Lord Summerhays, Mullavey is delightfully blustering as Mr. Tarleton, and the wonderful Peach a shrewd and motherly Mrs. Tarleton.  Best of all is the scene-stealing work of Schaffer, having a field day with the dynamic, opinionated, sexy Lena and earning deserved cheers for her eleventh hour monolog. (“And so you may tell your Johnny to buy an Englishwoman:  he shall not buy Lina Szczepanowska; and I will not stay in the house where such dishonor is offered me. Adieu.”)

With Stephen Gifford’s sunny, well-detailed garden pavilion set radiantly illuminated by Leigh Allen’s subtly effective lighting design, and Dennis Ballard’s costumes the very picture of early 20th Century style and elegance, this is a Misalliance that looks like a million bucks. Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design is excellent as well.

Ultimately, what one takes away from Misalliance (besides the pleasures of Shaw’s witty writing and skillfully drawn characters) is how amazingly ahead of his time the playwright was. Fully sixty years before the women’s movement began, Shaw created Lina Szczepanowska, a character every bit as liberated in her attitudes as even today’s most modern woman could aspire to be.  

In a production as fine as this one, Misalliance is a sure bet to delight women’s libbers, romcom lovers, and Shaw aficionados alike.  

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
March 26, 2009
                                                     Photos: Christopher Moscatiello

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