The decades before World War I, when the Industrial Revolution was just rolling into the century of unremitting technological change that followed, mark a kind of summit, a seemingly peaceful hilltop from which one could look back with pride on the many ways mechanical progress had made life easier—or look forward, either with hope or with deep foreboding, on the upheaval that would soon be wrought by progress yet to come. All three of the works covered in this column take place on that serene yet trouble-beset hilltop. Part 2 of Horton Foote's Orphans' Home Cycle views it in memory, from the perspective of still-isolated, small-town Texas, where change comes slowly. Ernest in Love, librettist Anne Croswell and composer Lee Pockriss's 1960 musicalization of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, reanimates it with puckish, epigrammatic twinkle. And Shaw's Misalliance, the only one of the trio written in the period (1910), gives, expectably, the most searching analysis of this resting place's many bustling levels.

Misalliance, currently enjoying a spirited revival by the Pearl Theatre Company under Jeff Steitzer's direction, derives its staying power from never being exactly what it seems. Often mistaken for a harmlessly frilly country-house comedy with farcical interruptions, it contains dark undertones and darker adumbrations of the chaotic future ahead. Its slender plot—a nouveau riche merchant's daughter throws over her soppy aristocratic fiancé in favor of an upstart who drops in—serves as a clothesline on which Shaw can drape arguments of every color and size on the subjects of mating, marriage, and children.

Dreams are alluded to, and the action often seems to be taking place in one. (The girl's suitor-switching suggests that Shaw intended a conscious update of A Midsummer Night's Dream.) However, the dark subplot that twines around the main story like a poisonous vine comes straight from one of the era's tabloid-grabbing scandals: In 1907, the department-store magnate William Whiteley was shot and killed by a young man claiming to be his illegitimate son; it subsequently developed that Whiteley, who advertised his megastore as "the universal provider," had provided many of his female employees with attentions well beyond work-related bounds.

Never quite what it seems: Sean McNall, Lee Stark, and Michael Brusasco in Misalliance
Sam Hough
Never quite what it seems: Sean McNall, Lee Stark, and Michael Brusasco in Misalliance

Details

Misalliance
By George Bernard Shaw
Pearl Theatre Company (MTC Stage II)
131 West 55th Street, 212-581-1212

Ernest in Love
By Anne Croswell and Lee Pockriss
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street, 212-727-2737

The Orphans' Home Cycle, Part 2
By Horton Foote
Signature Theater
555 West 42nd Street, 212-244-7529

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Shaw makes great comic hay of this, and nobody in Misalliance gets killed. (The situation also echoes motifs in Granville Barker's The Madras House, with which Misalliance was written to play in rep.) The underwear tycoon Tarleton (Dan Daily), Shaw's rewrite of Whiteley, is a self-educated philosopher as well as a self-made millionaire, unperturbed even by the emergence of a pistol-waving young stranger (Sean McNall) from a portable Turkish bath. Nothing fazes Tarleton except his recalcitrant daughter, Hypatia (Lee Stark), and an additional unexpected guest, Lina (Erika Rolfsrud), a "Polish lady" whose approach to life confounds and delights every male on the premises. Through her sanity and Tarleton's money, both plot and subplot get tidily resolved, but not before a good deal has been said, and done, that transgresses the usual limits of the era's country-house weekend behavior.

Without rushing, Steitzer keeps the action of this ostensibly all-talk play moving steadily across the wonderful criss-cross patterns of Bill Clarke's airy set. Any role in Misalliance, strongly played, can seem to be the lead. The four I've mentioned dominate this rendering: Stark pert, pretty, and vivacious; Rolfsrud knife-sharp in her good-humored clarity; McNall alternately pathetic and swaggering in his desperation; and Daily, lamblike in tenderness or perplexity when not roaring with fury. The others seem muted by comparison, but this is as good a Shaw production as we've had in some time.

Wilde, at the Irish Rep, fares only slightly less well. The Importance of Being Earnest suffers surprisingly little from being musicalized. The Edwardian lilt of Pockriss's catchy, parlor-piano tunes flows from the dialogue's rhythmic bounce, and Croswell's lyrics often rise to match Wilde's spirit, if not his immaculately imperturbable tone ("In an age/When sex is not discussed/Except upon the stage/A Bunbury is a must"). Charlotte Moore's direction tends to insist on a rather abstract idea of the Wildean style, resulting in the rather generalized prettiness of Barry McNabb's choreography. On the other hand, the young folks all sing agreeably, Beth Fowler is a staunch Lady Bracknell, and the choreography finds its justification in the casting, as Jack, of Noah Racey, of whose feet in motion no musical can have too much.

Like both Ernest and Misalliance, Part Two of Horton Foote's Orphans' Home Cycle, The Story of a Marriage, deals with youngsters mating in defiance of parental protest, and, like Shaw's play, Foote's looks ahead to the bleakly chaotic world the young are about to enter. By the end of this middle segment of Foote's trilogy, America is in the war; even boys from this quiet Texas town are turning up in uniform or heading off toward the front. In the first act, the unassertive but obstinately present hero, Horace (Bill Heck), patiently woos a local widow who, under the sway of a less worthy but more forceful lover, can't bring herself to care enough. In the second act, Horace has better luck with Elizabeth Vaughn (Maggie Lacey), whose inner fortitude, a match for his, proves able to withstand her snobbish parents' disapproval of Horace's "wild" reputation. A final act shows Horace and Elizabeth, married and shortly to become parents themselves, enduring a barren Christmas in a shabby rooming house, brightened by a tenuous family reconciliation.

Foote wallows in no Dickensian sentimentality here: The reunion's goodwill is kept to a terse minimum, while the newlyweds' drab room, like the widow's parlor in the first act, seems a magnet attracting every deranged or drunk person in the area. It's less hope for the future than a kind of dumbly persistent will to survive, now shared, that keeps Horace pressing on. Heck embodies it with moving impassivity; Lacey, coming into her own in this segment, provides towering support.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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