South Coast Repertory opens its 2010-2011 season with a deliciously staged and performed revival of George Bernard Shaw’s 100-year-old comedy Misalliance, a production so all-around splendid that it makes one of Shaw’s earliest plays seem half its age—or even younger.

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.

Shaw’s “comedy of ideas” 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 (Melanie Lora) is engaged to be married to Bentley Summerhays (Wyatt Fenner), 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 (Richard Doyle) has long since given up hope of his son’s ever maturing. When Johnny Tarleton (Daniel Bess) 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 (Dakin Matthews and Amelia White).

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 (Peter Katona) is precisely the kind of excitingly handsome young man to turn a girl’s heart away from a spoiled brat like Bentley, who happens to be 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 (Kirsten Potter), 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” (JD Cullum), there to settle a score with the elder Tarleton.

Director Martin Benson has taken characters already colorful on the printed page and made them 3D Technicolor—and as ingeniously and inventively performed as they likely have ever been in the century since Misalliance’s debut.

As a forerunner or today’s modern woman, the ever wonderful (and Scenie-winning) Lora proves a delectable pink-and-white heroine filled with as much spunk as she is strawberries and cream. Accent-master Bess is once again the very personification of the classically handsome leading man, with acting chops to match. As Lord Summerhays, South Coast Rep Founding Artist Doyle gives another of those richly textured performances SCR regulars have been enjoying over the past four decades or so. The role of Mrs. Tarleton provides White with yet another of those motherly parts she seems born to play. Katona proves himself every bit the dashing Edwardian hero as he was a contemporary rock star a few years back in SCR’s A Feminine Ending.

Then there are the lucky foursome who get Misalliance’s most colorful roles, and play them for all they’re worth. Matthews continues to be a veritable force of nature in whatever character he undertakes, and his John Tarleton is no exception, a part which Matthews invests with so much joie de vivre that’s it’s downright contagious. No one plays ballsy better than Potter, StageSceneLA Best Actress Award winner for her unforgettable against-type performance in SCR’s The Heiress, and Lina Szczepanowska is as ballsy a heroine as they come. Potter invests Lina with a flamboyant zest for life and enough toughs to take a strapping young lad like Bentley over her shoulder and run with him. Cullum, who just won StageSceneLA’s Best Lead Actor In A Comedy award for his “multi-colored tour-de-force comedic performance” in Much Ado About Nothing, is every bit as dazzling (and hilarious) as a wannabe anarchist—with some absolutely inspired comic business with a pistol that simply must be seen. Finally, there is the always amazing Fenner, winner of last year’s StageSceneLA Comedic-Dramatic Performance Of The Year award, whose pouty, spoiled, tantrum-prone, and totally irresistible Bentley Summerhays is one of the most unrestrained, unashamed comic treats you’re likely to savor all year.

Ralph Funicello’s garden pavilion set is as gorgeous and finely detailed as they come, and so are Maggie Morgan’s circa-1909 costumes, especially as illuminated by Tom Ruzika’s vibrant lighting design. Michael Roth’s original music provides the perfect mood-setting backdrop to Shaw’s frothy plot. There’s one particularly splendid sound and lighting effect that comes near the end of Act One, an airborne arrival that is well worth waiting for. The brilliant Oanh Nguyen is Misalliance’s associate director, Joshua Marchesi is production manager, and Jamie A. Tucker is stage manager.

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 liberated woman could aspire to be.

Any L.A.-based theater lover who doesn’t drive down to Costa Mesa at least once a month to catch South Coast Repertory’s upcoming season will be missing out on some of the finest theater anywhere in the U.S. Misalliance is no exception, a scrumptious bonbon for women’s libbers, romcom lovers, and Shaw aficionados alike.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
–Steven Stanley
September 19, 2010
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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