“My plays must be acted,” Bernard Shaw wrote to his director of choice, Granville Barker, “and acted hard.” By this he meant not that they should be overplayed, but that Barker should resist the late-Victorian theater’s prevailing habit of putting onstage well-clad, well-spoken people whose polite neutrality allowed a play to be heard, but not experienced, by its audience. “Directors always think,” Shaw complained punningly, “that worms make the best casts.”
No wormish acting, I’m glad to report, occurs in David Staller’s new production of Man and Superman (Irish Rep)—though it does contain some intermittent misunderstanding of what GBS meant about acting a play “hard.” In the opening scene, and at sporadic later points, a certain archness prevails. The cast seems to be “playing Shaw” rather than acting their roles. Most of them shake the attitudinizing off in due course; matters are helped immensely when Brian Murray and Laurie Kennedy, two experienced Shavians, get to assert themselves as, respectively, Roebuck Ramsden and Mrs. Whitefield. With such hands in charge, Shaw’s action quickly finds its footing on solid ground, and the Shavian spirit starts to assert itself without artifice, as its author wanted it to do.
That artifice tempted Staller, though is understandable: For all its hardheadedness and its cunningly firm construction, Man and Superman (1903) finds Shaw at his quirkiest. His brain was full of Bergson, Lamarck, and Nietzsche when he wrote it. He wove the ideas that they promulgated, of “the Life Force” and the Übermensch, into the play’s fabric like Wagnerian leitmotifs—dark burlap threads of abstract philosophy running through this shimmery silk shawl of a romantic comedy.
Ann Whitefield (Janie Brookshire), meant from childhood to marry her wealthy father’s ward, the bland aesthete Octavius (Will Bradley), naturally prefers his dashing, outspoken friend, Jack Tanner (Max Gordon Moore). Jack and Ann constitute Shaw’s update of the legendary Don Juan Tenorio and Doña Ana; Mozart’s Don Giovanni silently underscores the whole work. Wily Jack, though attracted to Ann, struggles to evade the marital trap by needling and browbeating her; wilier Ann outmaneuvers him at every turn, till his only recourse is escape—giving Shaw a handy excuse to supply an exotic Spanish setting for the evening’s second half. Encamped in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Jack dreams that he and Ann are Juan and Ana, trapped in Shaw’s topsy-turvy notion of Hell, engaging in metaphysical discussion with Ana’s father and the Devil—embodied by the stuffy Ramsden and by Mendoza (Jonathan Hammond), the intelligent but hopelessly romantic brigand whose scruffy band has stopped Jack’s car.
Jack’s dream, the famous “Don Juan in Hell” scene, would run, uncut, an hour and 40 minutes by itself, and has most often been played as a separate event. Since the main comedy also contains a subplot to contrast with Ann’s pursuit of Jack—an exceptionally sly one, about the wooing of Octavius’s sister Violet (Margaret Loesser Robinson) by a rich young American, Hector Malone (Zachary Spicer)—Man and Superman, if performed complete, would run well over five hours. It even includes a Shavian rework of the prototype story’s smart-aleck low comedian: Tanner’s chauffeur, Straker (Brian Sgambati), a 20th-century-style servant, trained to master the new century’s machinery.
Sensibly, Staller, like most directors, has made extensive cuts within each scene (we get about 40 minutes of “Don Juan in Hell”), bringing the running time down to just under three hours. Less wisely, to my mind, he has gussied up his scene changes (on an ingenious and handsome set by James Noone) with fusillades of one-liners, pulled from the text or from Jack’s pamphlet, “The Revolutionists’ Handbook.” Still, for the most part the show plays delightfully, once the actors have shaken off the archness. Shaw gets such big laughs, and strikes home so forcefully in his serious moments, that Staller’s stylistic fretwork was needless. Moore, a slight, nervy actor, makes a fluent but not optimally dominating Tanner; Brookshire, elegantly cool and assured, comes off much better, as do Sgambati and Spicer, either of whom might have made a stronger Tanner. With Hammond’s suave diablerie, Kennedy’s warmth, and Murray’s crispness, the evening does more than get by. It offers the miracle of all well-played Shaw: It never feels long.