If it sounds strange to call a 100-year-old play timely, note that the play in question is by George Bernard Shaw. His nine-character drawing-room comedy, “Misalliance,” is as enjoyably biting as anything written in recent years, and it’s remarkably astute about the upper-class hypocrisy in a distinctly Shavian way. Jeff Steitzer’s straightforward staging for the Pearl Theater Company does exactly the right thing for the venerable text: it moves out of the way and lets Shaw sparkle.
The misalliance in question is between two families — the nouveau-riche Tarletons (with a very funny Dan Daily as the unctuous patriarch, an underwear magnate) and the Summerhays clan. The latter is represented by patrician Lord Summerhays (Dominic Cuskern) and his odious son Bentley (a hilarious Steven Boyer, sporting plus-fours only Tintin could love).
Shaw spends the play slowly turning the tables on us — Bentley starts out wonderfully detestable, an overgrown toddler who throws himself on the ground and sobs whenever he can’t have his way. Lord Summerhays, by contrast, seems longsuffering and kindly, with an adorable soft place in his heart for his son’s fiancee, Hypatia Tarleton (Lee Stark as the family’s flighty, Hedda Gabler-lite daughter).
By the end of the show, we’re all rooting for Bentley and frightened half to death of his father, who has developed a truly disturbing personal philosophy during his time as a governor in Jinghiskahn, India.
Carefully, Shaw delineates a world run by ruthless capitalists and power-hungry noblemen, united by a strict moral code they impose on their subordinates but violate whenever they feel like it. Bentley and Hypatia are certainly badly matched in love, but it’s their fathers’ union that really gives us cause to worry.
The play is a comedy — practically a farce at times — but it’s also genuinely scary at least once. When a young socialist (Sean McNall) breaks into this hornet’s nest to take revenge on the senior Tarleton (who seduced his mother years earlier), he gets an earful from Summerhays. “Men are not governed by justice, but by law or persuasion,” Cuskern seethes. “When they refuse to be governed by law or persuasion, they have to be governed by force or fraud, or both.”
It’s comforting to be reminded that contemporary leaders didn’t invent this perspective, but its persistence doesn’t bode well for our getting shed of it any time soon.
What’s impressive about “Misalliance,” and this production in particular, is how funny and hopeful all this social commentary can be. Bentley’s pal and romantic rival Joey Percival (Michael Brusasco) literally drops out of the sky halfway through the play. He adds not one but two more subplots, since he brings along the inimitable, unpronounceable Lina Szczepanowska (Erikra Rolfsrud, clearly having a wonderful time) whose unconventional sexuality smites the stilted Victorian men with a mighty blow.
There’s much hiding in Turkish baths and kissing and telling; it’s all very fun and then very serious, such as when two of the young characters blithely decide to get married, even though each publicly admits to not loving the other.
The show is also a fine example of what the Pearl can do when it gets it right: McNall, Cover, Stark, Brusasco and Cuskern all had parts in the company’s “Playboy of the Western World” earlier this year, but few of them even approached the sure-footed performances they give here. Under director Steitzer, they work as a unit and demonstrate the advantages of having a group of actors whose association spans several shows.
Design elements are good, especially given the company’s tiny budget, with a particularly opulent-looking set from Bill Clarke and several nice costumes from Liz Covey. There are a couple of exceptions like Hypatia’s dowdy dress, and minor quibbles like Lord Summerhays’ clip-on tie. But the cumulative effect nicely matches the characters’ dry banter and maddening snobbery. There’s little to complain about, frankly — it’s a great play, well staged.