You Never Can Tell
Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
A Noise Within
Through May 15
You Never Can Tell, George Bernard Shaw’s turn of the 20th century rom-com, had a rocky start. Set to debut in 1897, it failed to make it to the stage that year, as actors struggled with the material and one leading lady quit, complaining the comedy had neither enough laughs nor enough exits. Not until 8 years later, in 1905, after Shaw had had it published in an anthology, did the piece have its first full run. Produced by Granville Barker at London’s Royal Court Theatre, it was a resounding success, helping to lay the cornerstone for the playwright’s popularity in Britain and here.
One reason for the delay in acclaim may have been the script’s complexity relative to the era’s standard drawing room comedy. Though Shaw intended to write a crowd-pleasing commercial vehicle, he nonetheless delved into the ambiguities of infatuation and the psychological predicament of a “modern” woman whose hormones have engaged in battle with her intellect. Being Shaw, he also had ambivalent things to say about the institution of marriage; the “you never can tell” of the title parallels the wisdom that an elderly waiter (Wesley Mann) imparts to the gentleman protagonist near the end, as the young man anxiously ruminates on his impending nuptials.
Valentine (Kasey Mahaffy), the husband-to-be in question, is a penniless dentist who’s recently begun practicing in a seaside town. Gloria (Jill Renner), his heartthrob, has only just arrived in England with her mother (Deborah Strang), a feminist and a grand proponent of science and reason. In tow are her two younger siblings, twins Philip (Richy Storrs) and Dolly (Erika Soto), a pair of cheeky charmers. The great desire of all three children is to learn the identity of their father, information their mother has tenaciously concealed but which they acquire soon enough when it emerges that this parent is living nearby (and in fact, unaware of his identity, they have actually already invited him to lunch).
Their papa, Fergus Crampton (Apollo Dukakis) is an elderly bah-humbug guy who’s appalled by the irreverence of the twins and offended by Gloria’s stern and unaffectionate independence. Dolly and Philip are equally dismayed at the evidence of kinship. As for Mrs. Clandon, it’s obvious that for her, 18 years of separation from Crampton haven’t been long enough.
Directed with a light but knowing hand by Stefanie Shroyer, You Never Can Tell runs two and three quarter hours that sustain some very funny moments. Many of those spring from the antics of the gamin Dolly and the puckish Phil. Both Soto and Storrs are witty, abundantly agile performers, and Soto especially is an endearing presence.
Mahaffy, tasked with a more difficult role in which he must juggle craft, introspection and irony, transforms in the course of the play from a cool observer of human behavior to a wily player in the game of love. As an imposing grump, Dukakis steals every scene he’s in.
The second act is a good deal more didactic than the first, but the company stays on top of it, although Renner does come across as an irremediable prig (not Shaw’s intent, I think).
All told, the production is a fine one, colorfully embellished with Angela Balogh Calin’s period costumes and Danielle Richter’s hair, wig and makeup design — all so much fun! Designers Don Llewellyn’s set and Jim Taylor’s lighting serve the story well.
A Noise Within, Foothill Blvd., Pasadena; in rep through May 15; call for schedule. (626) 356-3100, anoisewithin.org. Running time: two hours and 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.