The words “frothy romp” may not be the first to pop into a theatergoer’s head when describing a George Bernard Shaw comedy, but this is precisely what the author of Man And Superman, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and Saint Joan confectioned back in 1897 when he wrote You Never Can Tell (his “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” response to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest), evidence of which can currently be savored at A Noise Within’s ever so frothy, ever so rompy revival of this lesser-known Shaw gem.
Not that You Never Can Tell is mere superficial foam. The ideas expressed by matriarch Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon (Deborah Strang), the celebrated authoress of a series of “Twentieth Century Treatises,” have a decidedly feminist bent, and there’s a serious undertone once Mrs. Clandon’s eldest Gloria (Jill Renner) and fledgling dentist Valentine (Kasey Mahaffy) have gotten past the immediately smitten phase.
Still, from its initial meet-cute—Valentine extracts a tooth from Gloria’s eighteen-year-old sister Dolly (Erika Soto)—to Dolly’s bubbly interplay with her equally effervescent twin Philip (Richy Storrs) to the arrival of the deliciously curmudgeonly Fergus Crampton (Apollo Dukakis) to anything related to the three siblings’ imperious mother (who could give Lady Bracknell a run for her money), it’s clear that Shaw’s chief intention is to entertain.
In other words, even if a certain Shavian propensity towards verbosity has proven soporific in previous encounters, expect not a second of somnolence as You Never Can Tell weaves its magic spell.
The setup is fairly simple. Having escaped to Madeira a decade-and-a-half ago with three small children in tow, Mrs. Clandon and her offspring have at last returned to England, Gloria and the twins as clueless to their father’s identity as they’ve been for the past eighteen years.
Though it doesn’t take long for that mystery to be solved, rapprochement may take a bit longer—about two additional hours running time to be precise, during which the course of true love runs not so smoothly … to audience delight.
Also along for the ride are Mrs. Clandon’s former suitor (and current solicitor) Finch McComas (Jeremy Rabb), philosophical waiter Boon (Wesley Mann), whose life credo gives Shaw’s play its title, and barrister Walter Bohun (Freddy Douglas), whose surname happens not so coincidentally to rhyme with the waiter’s.
All of this adds up to a play that, while not generally considered a GBS chef-d’oeuvre, is easily the crowd-pleasingest Shaw-medy I’ve seen, particularly as performed by a couldn’t-be-better cast under the verve-vacious direction of a supremely imaginative Stephanie Shroyer, whose “business” alone could provide a master class in Directing Comedy For The Stage. (The binoculars biz is particularly inspired.)
The always marvelous Mahaffy reinvents himself as romantic leading man opposite a perfectly matched Renner, whose ice-maiden exterior masks fires beneath, and Soto and Storrs are downright irresistible as the irrepressible Dolly and Philip.
Opposite them, A Noise Within resident artists Douglas, Dukakis, Rabb, and Strang prove that like fine wine, great actors only grow greater with the passing years, and Mann steals every scene he’s in with his drolly-delivered Boon.
ANW acting interns Carina Haller, Marcos J. Ruiz, and Kathryn Ventress fill in ably in assorted cameo roles.
Scenic designer Don Llewellyn and props master Madeleine Maloy team up terrifically to take us to a late 1900s dentist’s office, a seaside hotel terrace, and an elegant sitting room with ocean view, with special kudos to Shroyer’s smartly choreographed mid-Act One scene change, executed to the pizzicato of sound designer Peter Bayne’s jaunty original music. Angela Balogh Calin’s stunning, minutely detailed period costumes and James Taylor’s vivid lighting complete an all-around splendid production design.
With few exceptions, I’ve mostly found George Bernard Shaw a bit of a tough go. Not so You Never Can Tell, the frothiest of frothy romps from start to finish, which only goes to show that in things Shavian, you never can tell.
A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd, Pasadena.
March 12, 2106
Photos: Craig Schwartz