Review: Super wit, fine cast in 'Man and Superman'

JENNIFER FARRAR Associated Press Published:

NEW YORK (AP) -- Although George Bernard Shaw's plays feature independent-minded women, some of his female characters are of necessity concerned with the traditional role of landing a wealthy husband and having babies.

Shaw's 1903 "Man and Superman", one of his best plays in the league of "Major Barbara" and "Pygmalion", is packed with quips and philosophical zingers, and contains a zesty battle of the sexes. A thoughtful, bright and lively production opened Sunday night off-Broadway at the Irish Repertory Theatre, co-presented by Gingold Theatrical Group.

Subtitled "A Comedy of Hellish Proportions," the well-acted satire is adapted and directed by David Staller. Max Gordon Moore and Janie Brookshire play the sparring young couple, affirmed bachelor Jack Tanner and wealthy, headstrong heiress Ann Whitefield. With just the right amount of comedic verve, they verbally spar in some of Shaw's more epic battles about the proper role of the sexes.

Staller's stylish adaptation includes a streamlined version of the famous 90-minute "Don Juan in Hell" dream scene in Act 2. It's a brisk debate among four characters: a now-philosophical Don Juan (Tanner), and his former lover Dona Ana, (Ann), quite surprised to find herself in Hell; Ana's father, the conventional Commander, (Brian Murray, comically dignified), visiting from Heaven and pondering moving south to the warmer climes of Hades; and their host, a genial dandy of a Satan, played by Jonathan Hammond with benignly confident panache.

Each character in this play-inside-a-play embodies a different attitude to the philosophical questions presented by Shaw. The playwright has slyly presented Heaven as incredibly dull and boring, while all the fun people are in Hell, enjoying eternity with "no hope, and consequently no duty, no work." Tanner is engagingly theatrical as he works through Don Juan's aversion to staying in Hell, where there's no personal responsibility. As Don Juan famously concludes in arguing with Satan, "And there you have our difference: to be in hell is to drift: to be in heaven is to steer."

Back in the real world, on the elegant, cream-and-gold set by James Noone, another young couple must fight for their right to be together: Ann's eminently practical sister Violet, (a charming Margaret Loesser Robinson), who wisely warns her stubborn husband Hector (Zachary Spicer), "We mustn't be romantic about money." Will Bradley is delightfully lovesick as youthful Octavius, hopelessly in love with Ann, and Brian Sgambati is wryly hearty as Tanner's chauffeur, Straker. Paul O'Brien and Laurie Kennedy round out the extremely capable cast.

In this age of "the 99 percent" vs the wealthy one percent, much of Shaw's 108-year-old humor remains perfectly relevant. When Mendoza, (Hammond), the merry leader of a band of brigands, waylays "the capitalist" Tanner, he introduces himself by saying, "I am a brigand! I live by robbing the rich!" To which Tanner cheerfully replies, "I am a gentleman: I live by robbing the poor."

Rich-looking period costumes by Theresa Squire aid the smart-looking presentation, with the only cheesy note being a backdrop encasing the scene in Hell that looks like a shower curtain. It was probably chosen for its reflective qualities, as red lighting by Kirk Bookman flickers ominously behind it.

Although Shaw rather traditionally assigned creativity to men and fertility to women, (Dona Ana's final goal in Hell is to find a father and create the Superman), the women in "Man and Superman" are as crafty as the men when it comes to achieving their goals. This luminous Irish Repertory production will resonate with audiences hungry for philosophical wit and humor.

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Online:

http://www.irishrep.org