Director David Warren’s knack with edgy, offbeat comedies would seem an uneasy match for the talky sophistication of G.B. Shaw, and indeed the broad range of acting styles encouraged in this staging of “Misalliance” initially gives an unwelcome double meaning to the play’s title. But energy and spirit win out, melding (for the most part) the cast into an ensemble and the production into a frothy pleasure.
Shaw subtitled his 1910 comedy “A Debate in One Sitting” (the Roundabout production seamlessly inserts an intermission), and he wasn’t kidding: The second half has a range of eccentric characters butting heads over any number of Shavian obsessions, from marriage and women’s rights to socialism, hypocrisy and parent-child relationships. With Warren’s guidance — and several standout performances — the marathon chatfest takes on the vigor of a comic romp. A very funny comic romp.
Play chronicles a spring day in 1909 at the country home of Mr. John Tarleton (Brian Murray), bringing together an assortment of characters that virtually defines “misalliance.” Tarleton is a successful underwear manufacturer who disdains both his natural business acumen and his aging body, longing instead for the heady world of books, ideas and endless debate. His daughter, Hypatia (Joanna Going), is the pampered rich girl who craves independence, action and release from the “talk, talk, talk” that pervades the household. Her escape is aristocratic fiance Bentley “Bunny” Summerhays (Alan Tudyk), an effete crybaby Hypatia can easily control.
Shaw tosses into the mix Hypatia’s stuffy, conservative brother, Johnny (Don Reilly), her good-natured, compassionate mother (Patricia Conolly) and Bentley’s no-nonsense father, Lord Summerhays (Remak Ramsay), then ups the ante with the plane-crash arrival of Joseph Percival (Sam Robards), a handsome pilot with whom Hypatia immediately becomes smitten, and his co-pilot, Lina Szczepanowska (Elizabeth Marvel), a Polish acrobat who devotes her life to dangerous adventure. Finally, there’s a gun-toting intruder (Zak Orth) who has his own personal agenda (not to mention political views).
Needless to say, much of the plot involves secret romantic entanglements and intrigue, which Shaw ties effortlessly to his notion that hypocrisy is the tie that binds society. As the lies unravel, so does the careful order of the household.
Warren doesn’t miss so much as a titter in the comic potential of the play, and he draws note-perfect performances from the ever-reliable Murray, Conolly, Ramsay and Robards. As Hypatia, Going at first seems too broad but finds her stride sooner than later. Tudyk, as the effeminate fiance, overplays the tantrums but snivels nicely, while Reilly is OK in the least showy role. Orth, as the milquetoast intruder, also overplays, but to good comic effect. Not so Marvel, whose Polish acrobat is as cartoonish as the femme half of “Bullwinkle’s” Boris and Natasha, only not so funny.
Catherine Zuber’s sunny period costumes strike the proper light tone, and the piles of books lining Derek McLane’s summerhouse are just waiting to be toppled by, say, a plane crash. The set, and the setup, are only two of the many payoffs in this “Misalliance.”