Attention refugees from such as the over-zealous, psychedelic projections of Ghost and the phoned-in performance by Matthew Broderick in Nice Work If You can Get It, a bit further downtown entertaining theater is alive and kicking. The Irish Repertory Company/Gingold Theatrical Group’s ebullient, meaty, beautifully produced Man and Superman is more than likely to send any thinking audience member home broadly grinning.*
Jack Tanner (Max Gordon Moore) is young, rich, forward thinking, and determined not to get tricked into marriage. “I am never the slave of love or its dupe.” His attractive former playmate, Ann (Janie Brookshire) is equally determined to land him. Upon the death of her father, Ann inappropriately becomes ward to both Jack and disapproving family friend, Ramsden (Brian Murray). “The more things a man is ashamed of, the more respectable he is,” huffs the representative of England’s old guard. (Lest you fear his stuffy presence, remember this is Shaw. Ann’s nickname for Ramsden, by which he is tickled, is Annie’s Granny).
Oblivious to her plans, Jack tries to pair Ann off with their naïve, poetic, love- struck friend Octavius (Will Bradley), called Ricky Ticky Tavy by Ann. Around this nucleus spins a secondary coupling and a roster of lively, idiosyncratic characters—including two brash Americans and a wonderfully conceived Spaniard—stubbornly, often hypocritically, playing out their own beliefs.
One of Shaw’s best comic efforts, the play offers his signature coupling of a battle of the sexes in extensively debated context of its era’s morals and morés.“The wonderful power of the author shows itself here for even with the knowledge of its ultimate conclusion, the interest of the audience grows keener as the play proceeds.” 1911’s review in London’s Play Pictorial. True.
Max Gordon Moore (Jack) is never less than captivating. His comic timing, artful, class-conscious physicality, and keen reactions willingly draw one’s attention. Credible from his entrance, Moore’s energy is matched only by apparent comprehension of complicated, adroitly communicated ideas delivered in a nifty English accent. It’s as easy to imagine him doing Shakespeare as light comedy. A thespian to watch.
Jonathan Hammond (Mendoza-whom they encounter in Spain, The Devil) is irresistible. His commanding presence and resonant voice make the actor a welcome addition to the scenario. Never overdoing showmanship, Hammond is charming and wry as Mendoza and smartly, defiantly polished as Mephistopheles—without ever actually raising an eyebrow. Great casting.
The inimitable Brian Murray (Ramsden) continues to personify being disgruntled as skillfully as he manages the twinkle in his eye. Always a pleasure to watch, Murray makes his character’s learning curve believable and excels during delicious tenure in Hell.
I found Janie Brookshire (Ann) to be a late blooming flower, her focus and comfort with Shaw’s language not evident until the second scene of the second act, whereupon it suddenly appears full blown.
Margaret Loesser Robinson (Tavy’s sister, Violet) and Will Bradley (Octavius) both do fine jobs with small roles. A crisp, but graceful character whose brain clearly remains uncorseted, Robinson’s well drawn creation is real enough to step off the stage. Her timing is impeccable. Bradley’s innocent, bright-eyed Tavy grows increasingly sympathetic as the play unfolds and the actor is given more leeway to be funny. The portrayal is nicely acted, without exaggeration.
Also featuring Laurie Kennedy (Ann’s mother, Mrs. Whitefield), Brian Sgambati (Jack’s chauffer, Straker), Zachary Spicer (an admirably unstudied galoot of a Hector) and Paul O’Brian (Hector’s father, a well played, pompous Malone).
Director David Staller has a well honed feel for the rhythms of Shaw, making often dense dialogue conversational. Innovative breaking of the fourth wall is well orchestrated as are scenes—especially those in Hell—which I’ve seen elsewhere as static. Delightful small gestures and facial expressions add to character definition. None are gratuitous. Company focus is cohesive and consistent. The play ends with great flair.
The set by James Noone is one of the best I’ve seen at Irish Rep. A terrific use of space, stylish white and gilt walls and a faux parquet floor serve both mood and era admirably. Minimal furniture never overwhelms characters. The metamorphoses of a tea cart is extremely imaginative. Hell is simply and well conceived, blessedly without red.
Costumes by Theresa Squire are period accurate, flattering, and kept to an aesthetically appealing, unobtrusive palette. Head and footwear is apt, boutonnieres appear like social comments. Her “patched together” apparel for “Don Juan in Hell” is inspired.
Lighting Designer Kirk Bookman does a fine job, most particularly with shadows and firelight. Sound Designer M. Florian Staab offers nuanced background texture including never less than pitch perfect music (no pun intended), a lovely bonging of-Big Ben?, and evocative outdoor sounds. All feel integral.
*Note: the production includes Shaw’s optional “interior play” Don Juan in Hell, which, though scintillating, feels unnecessary, making the piece clock in at a long two hours forty-five minutes. No large meals beforehand as there’s danger of fading about then. Revival occurs next scene.
Photos by James Higgins
Opening shot (left to right): Janie Brookshire (Ann, seated), Will Bradley (Octavius), Zachary Spicer (Hector), Brian Murray (Ramsden), Max Gordon Moore (Jack), Margaret Loesser Robinson (Violet), Brian Sgambati (Straker) and Paul O’Brien (Malone)
Second Photo: (left to right): Max Gordon Moore (Jack), Laurie Kennedy (Mrs. Whitefield), Janie Brookshire (Ann Whitefield), Will Bradley (Octavius) and Brian Murray (Ramsden).
Third Photo of Hell (left to right): Jonathan Hammond (The Devil) ,Max Gordon Moore (Don Juan), Brian Murray (The Statue).
Last: Original Production photo
Man and Superman by Bernard Shaw
Presented by The Irish Repertory Company and
Gingold Theatrical Group
Adaptation and Direction by David Staller
The Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22 St.
Through June 17, 2012