Ah, theater and men’s underwear—somehow a natural fit in Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’s smart “Misalliance” (1910). The comedy, some of whose characters have a vested interest in intimate apparel, ingeniously treats subjects as far-ranging as the generation gap, stifling social standards, class distinctions, even Socialism. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production, seen Saturday evening, Aug. 22, is the antidote for today’s nauseating sitcom, with its predictably tiresome formula. This riotously clever play about polite society behaving abominably, richly rewards close listening with thought-provoking witticisms … Hm, thinking that causes gales of laughter—what a novel idea!
The nine-member cast’s prodigious talent makes two things very clear: The play has no truly “minor” character, not even the one with the fewest lines, and no actor could be singled out as a weak link. Director Stephen Brown-Fried led a spirited ensemble in this sparkling gem. His art produced perfectly-played scenes all the way from an intimate tête-à-tête to a roiling, boisterous whirlwind of madcap antics. Making comedy simultaneously both believable and unreal is a true coup, and comedy is an artfully cultivated Company specialty.
“Misalliance” opens on a typical Friday evening at Hindhead, the summer estate of John and “Chickabiddy” Tarleton and their twenty something son and daughter, Johnny and Hypatia, with whom nearly all other male cast members are, were, or soon will be romantically attached.
Katie Fabel plays the seemingly irresistible Hypatia, for the moment lovelessly engaged to Bentley Summerhays, youngest son of Lord Summerhays. She adroitly depicts the upper middle-class girl’s dilemma: excruciating boredom due to the rigid strictures of genteel society on her chances to explore the world, let alone run it; impossible social expectations; and the tired, worn-out conventions of the supposedly well-mannered. She truly “wants adventure to drop out of the sky.” If there were such a thing, Katie Fabel would surely win a Tony for the best facial expressions, keenly nuanced and organic to each situation.
Fully inhabiting the role of Lord Summerhays, Jonathan Gillard Daly makes an impressive debut with the Company. His quiet motionlessness quickly morphs into sizzling intensity and back again, and despite his passion, he ever displays the proper decorum expected of the aristocracy. If not the moral compass of “Misalliance,” his character is certainly the ethical guide, albeit a cynical one. Jonathan Gillard Daly effectively and with seeming effortlessness delivers his lines—whether sympathetic, supportive dialogue or eloquent monologue—rendering him a highly believable aristocrat.
Ames Adamson plays the undergarment magnate John Tarleton, who has amassed an obscene fortune with Tarleton’s Underwear. His initially avuncular character covers the entire gambit of dramatic expression, from oblivious exuberance to none-too-subtle seduction and hitting its apex in an over-the-top tirade, during which his natural pallor turned first to a natural, bright ruddiness, then to a sustained, steadily deepening, dangerous redness that worried some audience members.
Matt Kleckner (debut), playing John Brown aka Julius Baker, enters at the play’s halfway point. A peculiar young man, he holds Mr Tarleton at gunpoint accusing him of, years ago, seducing and abandoning his mother, Lucinda Titmus. The “high-class” characters subject him to cruel coercion, using lowlife tactics actually expected of “honorable” people who give themselves permission to “play the game” with impunity, until Mrs Tarleton recognizes his deceased mother’s photographs and tenderly takes him under her protective, nurturing wing. Matt Kleckner does a particularly good job at acting drunk, not overplaying it.
Erika Rolfsrud as Mrs Tarleton struggles to keep her, um, respectable family’s reputation intact no matter how many hurtles arise before her. To her belong some of the funniest lines, as when describing her future son-in-law as “a little squit of a thing” who’s “overbred, like one of those expensive little dogs.” The actress moves quickly throughout the work, even at moments of intended repose, as when embroidering with Hypatia. No doubt with an excellent makeup artist’s help, this young woman fully transformed into the matriarch who’s clearly in control of everything, the stalwart soul of the Tarleton family.
Caralyn Kozlowski plays Lina Szczepanowska, an oddball of striking beauty whose sudden appearance totally shifts the men’s attention from Hypatia to herself. A member of a famous Polish family of acrobats who make it a point of honor to risk their lives at least once a day, her exoticism elicits in quick succession proposals or propositions from Johnny and Mr Tarleton; even Lord Summerhays was involved with her two years earlier. But she later inexplicably pairs off with Bentley. The high-flying charismatic Caralyn Kozlowski accords her screwball character the only truly sane, grounded behavior, among so many maniacs.
Also debuting is Matthew Sherbach as Bentley Summerhays, the most annoying, spoiled embodiment of entitlement. Bentley’s whining and tantrums alienate practically everyone else. We hear the play’s title from his lips: “This is the man who objected to my marrying his daughter on the ground that a marriage between a member of the great and good middle class with one of the vicious and corrupt aristocracy would be a misalliance. A misalliance, if you please!” The scrawny actor masterfully plays the character you love to hate and is the personification of portability when Lina bodily hoists and hauls him away.
Robbie Simpson debuts as handsome Joey Percival, friend of Bentley and part-time aviator whose aeroplane crashes into the Tarletons’ greenhouse. Joey eventually rectifies the title misalliance by at first fleeing (not too quickly) from but ultimately falling for Hypatia, who pleads, “Papa, buy me the brute.” Rounding out the cast, Brian Cade is Johnny Tarleton.
The Shakespeare Theatre never disappoints aesthetically. Brian Clinnin devised the attractive unit set, and Costume Designer Tilly Grimes handsomely outfitted everyone in elegant Edwardian period attire.
Just one week remains to catch this not-to-be-missed theatrical accomplishment—or to see it again—so hurry.
“Misalliance,” by George Bernard Shaw
Through Aug. 30th
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
The F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre
36 Madison Ave
Madison NJ 07940
Box office: 973-408-5600