Probably the single most startling fact about George Bernard Shaw’s early comedy The Philanderer (City Center Stage II)—just revived by the Pearl Theatre in a juicily stylish production by Gus Kaikkonen—is that it’s based on personal experience. In his mid-thirties, Shaw was simultaneously having affairs—yes, sexual affairs, coition included—with two women, a widow somewhat older than himself and an actress slightly younger. Both were highly temperamental; the widow was possessive, and a confrontational scene ensued. Shaw poured it, and the resulting emotional fallout, into The Philanderer, published in 1898 as one of the three plays he designated “unpleasant.”
Conventional minds view Shaw as “sexless” or, at best, “cold.” The Philanderer shows clearly that his temperature could sizzle as well as chill. His active sex life began late—in his thirties–and might have ended fairly early with his “white” marriage to a woman somewhat his senior, and he might have viewed his passions cerebrally, but in his peculiar way, he obviously felt them. Manifestly, the script reveals, he knew all about the differences, physical and psychological, between men and women; he demonstrates just how tangled at moments of high emotion the two genders can get.
As always, Shaw’s artistic ambitions here go beyond emotional autobiography. He transforms his experience into another of his early attempts both to crack the London theater’s commercial-comedy market and to update its backward-looking mores. Along the way, he scores regular hits at a less expected target: the persistent longing that often lies just under the surface in people of supposedly “advanced” ideas for simpler, more old-fashioned notions of right and wrong. And Shaw would not have excluded himself from those who felt so divided.
Charteris (Bradford Cover), The Philanderer‘s Shaw-like title character, is as unheroic as the male lead in a comedy can get. Tired of dallying with hyperemotional, husband-hungry Julia Craven (Karron Graves), the spoiled elder daughter of a stuffy Army officer, he has turned his attention to a more soignée widow, Grace Tranfield (Rachel Botchan). He’s proposing to her at the play’s outset when Julia bursts in on them. Matters get complicated further when Grace’s father, Cuthbertson (Dominic Cuskern), a drama critic, arrives arm in arm with a long-lost school friend he has run into by chance at the theater—Julia’s father, Colonel Craven (Dan Daily). Cuthbertson’s profession gives Shaw yet another handy target: the theater’s habitually backdated view of male-female relations.
More ensnarlments ensue in subsequent acts. First everyone, even the two fuddy-dud fathers, turns up at “the Ibsen Club,” Shaw’s puckish imagining of a place where high-class gentry with “advanced” ideas might socialize. Here, two additional characters increase the emotional crisscross: Colonel Craven’s smart-tongued, assertively mannish younger daughter, Sylvia (Shalita Grant, droll but weirdly off-key), and Paramore (Chris Mixon), an ambitious research physician infatuated with tempestuous Julia. (Add another favorite Shavian target, medical science’s potential for fakery.) The resolution, as befits an “unpleasant” play, gets Julia married off while leaving everyone onstage, herself included, thoroughly dissatisfied.
Dense and tricky, full of 1890s arcana remote from us, The Philanderer has never been anybody’s favorite Shaw comedy. Yet Kaikkonen, thinning the text and giving the action a strong physical life, makes it seem both lively and pertinent to today’s world. An inventive and handsome set by Jo Winiarski, complete with a large Ibsen portrait over the club’s mantelpiece, helps immensely, as does an onstage spinet that several cast members actually seem to know how to play. (And Kaikkonen, attentive to detail, picks the right tune from the day’s standards, “When Other Lips” from Balfe’s Bohemian Girl.)
He fields a strong ensemble, revealing that the Pearl’s resident company is in solid shape this year. Botchan, Cuskern, and Daily are all in elegant form here, while Cover, doing his most striking work to date, invests the unheroic hero with a greasy, mop-haired, freewheeling raffishness that perfectly matches the wicked charm of the character’s attitude. Daringly, Kaikkonen gives Graves leeway to set the evening’s emotional bar high; she pushes Julia’s tantrums to the exact borderline of excess. Under the laugh-provoking frenzy lies not only a brainy take on the mess our passions make of our lives but also a twinge of pity from someone who’d been there himself.