It’s the clash of British social classes that provides George Bernard Shaw’s 1910 comedy with its title. But for the period costumes in this precise, stylish and funny production, the play could take place in the 1990s; its arguments on religion, honor, social politics and justice hold to this day.
Central characters are two families, the middle-class Tarletons (breadwinner John is a self-made underwear mogul) and the upper-class Summerhayses. Bentley “Bunny” Summerhays is engaged to Hypatia Tarleton tothe dissatisfaction of all concerned; he’s not ready for marriage, she finds him boring, and both families find the self-centered Bunny to be an insufferable twit.
Well into the play, an airplane crashes into the Tarletons’ greenhouse; out of it step pilot Joey Percival (an old friend of Bunny’s), and his passenger, Polish aviatrix Lina Szczepanowska. The group dynamics change abruptly, even more so when a young man sneaks into the Tarletons’ house to avenge John Tarleton’s indiscretion with his mother.
The Los Angeles Repertory Co. is presenting the play with two casts (only Sean Sullivan and Kirk Stricker appear in all performances). The second set of actors will begin alternating with the first in a week or so; in the meantime, the first cast is doing a terrific job on a play that’s not without its share of problems.
Shaw’s construction is a bit clunky by contemporary standards. It occasionally seems as though he’s more interested in serious philosophizin’ than in playwrightin’.
In a cast that’s uniformly topnotch, Sullivan triumphs as the bright, spoiled , conceited and quite shameless Bunny — and then disappears for quite a stretch. Kirk Stricker gives a more subtle, but still engaging, interpretation of Johnny Tarleton, Hypatia’s straitlaced brother; Cliff Jewell plays Gunner, a representative of the lower social orders, as a sort of Cockney Cagney; and Eleni Kelakos has a ball overplaying the resolute aviatrix.
William H. Bassett is concurrently playing George Bernard Shaw in the company’s Tuesday and Wednesday night stagings of “Dear Liar,” which explains his Shaw-like beard. It works, too, in his portrayal of the proletarian Tarleton. Melissa Converse comes on dithery only to reveal surprising strength as Mrs. Tarleton, and Jim Freiburger — who also designed the handsome set — is properly patrician as Lord Summerhays. Ted Deasy does what he can with the play’s least developed character, dauntless pilot Percival, and Susan Angelo is delightful as the flirtatious, fickle Hypatia.