In David Emmes’ lively staging (made all the more engaging thanks to John Iacovelli’s eye-catching sets), George Bernard Shaw’s irreverent look at affairs of the heart emerges as toothsome entertainment with a few telling lessons. SCR’s longstanding love affair with the plays of Shaw continues on a high note as the company opens its 36th season with his 1905 work “The Philanderer.”
Free-love advocate Leonard Charteris (Douglas Weston) has the hots for Grace Tranfield (Kaitlin Hopkins) — this week at least. But when former flame Julia Craven (Nancy Bell) rudely intrudes on the couple’s tryst, Grace opts to exit the scene, and ultimately her relationship with Leonard.
Julia is not so well-mannered, refusing to leave the Tranfield sitting room until Leonard takes her back. He, of course, turns her down. Soon, Grace’s father, Mr. Cuthbertson (Don Took), returns home with a long-lost friend, Col. Daniel Craven (Richard Doyle), none other than Julia’s father. Need we mention that antics ensue?
A winning combination of social philosophy and farce, this play works best when it takes itself least seriously. Director Emmes understands that and elevates the work’s second act — the play’s high point — to comic nirvana.
Set in the fictional Ibsen Club, a proto-feminist gathering place in which at least half the members seem to be there reluctantly, act two finds Leonard devising a plan to reverse his reversals: make Julia fall in love with someone else and win back Grace’s affection. A series of entrances and exits allows for various couplings, and Shaw introduces two new characters, Sylvia Craven (Lynsey Mcleod), Julia’s acerbic, mannish sister, and Dr. Paramore (Francois Giroday), a stuck-up physician who has diagnosed Col. Craven with an incurable and fatal disorder.
By the third act, Shaw, through Leonard’s efforts, has improbably paired off Dr. Paramore and Julia, who for no real reason seems willing to accept him as her mate. The good doctor has also been humbled, learning that Col. Craven won’t die, after all.
It’s all so much froth, naturally, but Emmes and company make it engaging and even stimulating, deft comic timing being the name of the game. Iacovelli’s sets prove nearly as great a pleasure. With walls of royal blue and lilac, his sets convey Victorian sensibilities without the fustiness. The Ibsen Club locale, especially, is a wonder, its enormous portraits of Hedda Gabler and Nora Helmer flanking a marble bust of their creator. Kiosks sporting play names and plush furnishing complete the picture. Walker Hicklin’s smart costumes only complement the effect.
The acting is never less than proficient, even if company vets Doyle and Took alternatingly bluster and mumble too much. But Weston’s spry turn makes Leonard a lovable rogue. Hopkins and Bell offer opposite but equally winning sides of womanhood, while Mcleod plays the troublemaker to the hilt. The gifted Giroday, though late to the party, is best of all, at once haughty and timorous.