Yale Repertory Theater opens its season on a Shavian high with a sterling production of “You Never Can Tell” that presents the 104-year-old play as if it were freshly minted and also offers it as a tonic for audiences discomfited by recent events.
A comparatively early Shaw work, the last of his “plays pleasant,” “You Never Can Tell” truly is a charmer, full of themes and variations — and even characters — the playwright developed further in later plays, and blessed with a heart that some of the later plays don’t have. Apparently the first play to deal with both legal separation and dental extraction, it’s deliciously amusing and not a little thoughtful, and the Rep has given it a splendid cast, spirited direction, eye-popping sets and elegant pre-Edwardian costumes. It’s a heartening success.
The play begins with young Dolly (Mireille Enos) having just had a tooth pulled without benefit of gas by tyro dentist Valentine (John Hansen). She’s joined by her brother, Philip (Neal Dodson), and the two reveal themselves as an irrepressibly tactless (or honest) duo forever embarrassing and enraging others. They have just arrived at the English seaside resort in which the play is set from Madeira, where their mother took them 18 years earlier when she and her husband separated.
She’s one of Shaw’s modern women, the author of a series of books who’s chosen to live without love and men since her early unhappy marriage. She has raised her first-born, Gloria (Shannon Koob), to be a clone of herself while allowing her two younger children to run wild. Through a series of highly improbable coincidences (e.g., the dentist’s landlord turns out to be the children’s long-lost father, played by Martin Rayner), the unhappy family situation is resolved, and Valentine and Gloria are betrothed.
Along the way there’s much Shavian verbal sparring and anti-hypocritical thinking, helped along by the role of the waiter Walter (Michael Allinson), the tongue-in-cheek representative of the people who gives the play its title. There is also a last-act appearance of the waiter’s son, a queen’s counsel (Richmond Hoxie), who acts as a deus ex machina to sort everything out.
Virtually every role in the play is a gift that the Rep cast relishes. Enos and Dodson are wonderfully outrageous scamps as the younger Clandons, Shipley a powerhouse as their mother, and Koob coolly beautiful and technically expert as the Schopenhauer-reading Gloria. She’s well matched by Hansen’s ardent Valentine, and their second-act scene is very much the play’s focal point.
Allinson brings much amusing gravity to the old retainer/waiter, thereby anchoring the play, and Rayner is wonderfully sad/angry as the father who has been denied access to his children. Thomas James O’Leary brings just the right amount of prissiness to Mrs. Clandon’s solicitor McComas, and Hoxie has sufficient physical and dramatic heft to pull off his last-act stint as peacemaker.
John Coyne has designed three terrific sets, starting with a rather dreary dentist’s office and then opening up the full extent of the larger University Theater’s stage for an outdoor seaside hotel’s terrace, Union Jack flying, and then a glorious glass hotel conservatory, adding colorful Chinese lanterns for the last act’s fancy-dress ball. Katherine Roth’s mostly floor-length gowns for the women are so beautifully designed that they virtually force the actresses wearing them to do so with elegance.